Singapore - The 2012 IISS Shangri-la Security Dialogue features 27 high level delegations with 16 defense ministers - but no senior officials from the Chinese government or the People's Liberation Army. The biggest question among delegates at the conference is, why didn't the Chinese decide to attend in full force?
There are three basic theories as to why Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie, who engaged the forum robustly last year, held bilateral meetings with U.S. officials, and even took questions from your humble Cable guy, decided to skip the conference this year. One theory is that China's impending internal political transition is causing senior Chinese officials to avoid public forums where they might be forced to make comments that could hurt them domestically.
Another theory states that China concluded after last year's event that the forum too easily becomes a space for regional medium sized powers to gang up on China. A third theory is that China is trying to send a message that it opposes regional multilateral forums that include the United States and wants to establish that China's relationship with its neighbors is not an issue it wants to discuss with Washington in the room.
John Chipman, the director general and chief executive of IISS, emphasized the first theory in his official explanation of the Chinese decision, in response to a question posed in open session by The Cable. He noted that the Chinese government has assured IISS it is committed to the conference in the future, but it just wasn't doable this time around.
"I was told that travel schedules and domestic priorities might make minster level attendance this year difficult, something they very much regretted because they would not want their absence from the Shangri-la Dialogue to be misinterpreted," he said.
Chipman said there are 27 Chinese government representatives at the conference and noted, "I very much look forward in 2013 to receiving at the Shangri-la Dialogue ministerial level representation from China."
The Cable asked Defense Secretary Leon Panetta directly how he felt about the Chinese lack of high level participation. He was in town to give a speech to explain the U.S. "rebalancing" toward Asia and to announce some specific details of that endeavor, including that the U.S. will shift more Naval resources to the Pacific theatre.
"We're not naïve about the relationship and neither is China. But we also both understand that there really is no alternative but to engage and to improve our communications and improve our relationships," he said. "That's' the kind of mature relationship we need to ultimately have with China."
U.S. experts and officials here in Singapore said that China's "domestic priorities" explanation was partially true. But China has also a desire to avoid confrontations in public and senior Chinese officials are just less willing these days to open themselves up to criticisms and answer tough questions.
"If Gen. Liang comes here, I think the Chinese believe at this juncture that China becomes a target of concern and there would be many questions and criticisms that China would have to face. And because of the domestic situation in China, they would feel compelled to forcefully defend China's position," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "That would then sow greater tensions with the region and with the U.S. and would further incite tensions at home. This is a lose-lose situation for China so they decided at this particular juncture, better to skip the event. There are greater risks than benefits."
Abe Denmark, an Asia-Pacific advisor for CNA Strategic Studies, pointed out that Liang managed to set aside "domestic priorities" to attend the ASEAN defense ministers' meeting in Cambodia just last week. He speculated the Chinese are avoiding forums where the U.S. is prevalent, as a means of trying to elbow Washington out of regional affairs.
"This is much more about China's preferred method of engaging East Asia," he said. "They would rather emphasize dialogues and mechanisms that don't have as large of an American presence. The consequence for them is they are not able to address the questions and concerns the region has at as high of a level as they have in the past."
Several clues suggest that China is expressing its opposition to the increasing U.S. role in multilateral regional affairs. For example, a front page commentary in the People's Daily this week says that China's disputes with its neighbors related to the South China Sea "have nothing to do with the US".
"Issues that arise from the South China Sea need to be solved through negotiations by China with the claimants," states the commentary. "Intervention by external sources will only make existing contradictions more complicated and sharpen conflicts further, especially when a force of hegemony intervenes."
Some delegates here at the conference said that last year, China was lauded for sending their highest level delegation ever, even though they didn't really address regional concerns head on. This year, that probably wouldn't have been the case.
"The image of last year was that China was the star just because they came here. Substantively, they should have been embarrassed because the guy didn't say anything and they didn't answer any questions," said Ralph Cossa, president of CSIS's Pacific Forum. "Now the novelty is gone."
The leaders of the Shangri-la dialogue have played it right by encouraging Chinese participation but not bending the rules to accommodate China's desire for special status, Cossa said. But ultimately, the Chinese will have decide one way or the other whether conferences like these are worthwhile for them to participate in fully.
"You could draw a lesson from this that the U.S. remains very committed and China is still not sure how it wants to engage, other than on its own terms," Cossa said. "It means that you either start kow-towing to China and agree to do it their way, or you say to China, ‘Look, the invitation is here. When you are willing to play by the rules... come and play.'"
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.