Nick Bisley ended his distillation of Day 1 of the Shangri-La Dialogue with this: 'We will have to wait for the second day to see how Beijing responds to the gentle but calculated pressure it has been placed under so far.'
Well, we now have a definitive answer to Nick's question: not well.
Delegates to the Shangri-La Dialogue witnessed something extraordinary this morning, with Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, the deputy chief of the general staff who is leading the Chinese delegation, launching a rhetorical fusillade at Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.
General Wang evidently has a flair for drama. The first five or so minutes of his speech were pure boilerplate, featuring an abundance of Chinese diplomatic cliches ('peaceful development'; 'non-interference in internal affairs'; China's defence policy is 'defensive in nature') which in retrospect might have been intended to heighten the impact of what was to follow.
For all of a sudden General Wang announced that he was diverting from his prepared remarks to respond to the speeches by Abe and Hagel. He accused them of provocation and intimidation, said they had coordinated their attacks (why should Wang be surprised; they are allies), and that they had made unwanted and unexpected criticisms. Wang preferred Hagel's speech, he said, because it was at least honest about naming its target. But he then went on to describe Hagel's remarks as unacceptable and outside the spirit of the dialogue, full of hegemony, threat and intimidation, and intended to create trouble and provocation.
It was stirring stuff, though when Wang came to describing in detail what Hagel and Abe had actually gotten wrong, he had little to say. He asked rhetorically 'Who is creating trouble?', and said China only ever responds to provocation but never takes the first step. In other words, 'You started it'. For all the build-up, it was actually a rather weak rebuttal.
Then Wang announced he was returning to his prepared remarks (though of course the impromptu bit was prepared too), which ended with the rather unsubtle jab at Tokyo that China would 'never allow fascism to make a come-back' to the Asia Pacific.
Wang's speech will no doubt be analysed from all angles in coming days, but I'll confine myself to one point for now. This conference is taking place a time when regional confidence in America's pivot to Asia is diminishing. Lowy Institute Executive Director Michael Fullilove distilled this mood yesterday when he asked Secretary Hagel why President Obama had never defended the pivot to an American audience. As Michael later told Bloomberg News, 'if (the pivot is) a serious strategic doctrine it needs to have domestic underpinnings, that weight you get from talking about it in the state of the union or the West Point speech.'
I agree and I think the region is right to doubt American resolve, particularly when it comes to disputes in the South China Sea which fall below the American threshold of issues for which they would be prepared to risk war with China. But if General Wang's speech is any indication, perhaps the Chinese do not share these doubts about American staying power.
Photo courtesy of @IISS_org.