The 14th Shangri-La Dialogue may have disappointed headline writers by failing to produce the anticipated heated US-China exchanges. As noted by Rory Medcalf, US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter's tone was firm and measured. The brief for Beijing's senior representative, Admiral Sun, was likewise apparently to avoid head-on collisions, at the expense of not answering most of the questions asked of him.

Despite this rhetorical calming of the waters, the US-China strategic dynamic, and their growing rift in the South China Sea, overshadowed the key exchanges.


Delegates listen to a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue. (Flickr/Ash Carter.)

My major take-away from listening to on- and off-the-record exchanges was a strengthened conviction that transparency is over-sold as a concept for building trust between the US and China, and between China and its rival Southeast Asian claimants in the South China Sea.

Transparency featured in several speeches by defence ministers at the Dialogue: from Japan ('ensuring transparency in defence policies of each country is vital'), New Zealand ('transparency is critical for managing military modernisation'), Malaysia, the UK and Germany ('transparency is the key').

Transparency has been a watchword in security debates since the Cold War. In the region, China has been singled out for the lack of clarity in its military spending and ill-defined claims in the South China Sea. Much of the focus on transparency and 'strategic uncertainty' in Asia Pacific security dialogues points implicitly, if not exclusively, to such concerns about China.

But this focus on transparency needs updating, because China's artificial island building over the past year in the South China Sea — the talking point of the dialogue — has clarified things nicely.

Questions remain about exactly how China will employ its artificial islands for defence purposes. But the intention to establish an air and naval presence at several reclaimed features in the Spratlys is clear and would be difficult to reverse given the resources invested. Yes, Admiral Sun's speech repeated China's claims that the facilities will be used for civilian purposes such as search and rescue, and weather watching. But I doubt if many in the audience took this at face value.

The reason the South China Sea and China's reclamation activities garnered so much attention at SLD14 is not because Beijing's intentions are opaque but because they are dazzlingly clear. As Alex Neill of IISS argues, 'for China to have deployed such staggering resources at breakneck speed a thousand miles from its coast would have required a long-standing, intricate master plan' personally endorsed by Xi Jinping.

Shortly before the SLD the Chinese Government released a defence strategy paper detailing plans for 'a modern maritime military force structure' to safeguard sovereignty and maritime rights protection against neighbours who 'take provocative actions and reinforce their military presence on China's reefs and islands that they have illegally occupied'. The PLA, the document said, is shifting focus from the defence of offshore waters to 'open seas protection'. The document is less explicit than Western defence white papers, but the basic objectives and implications for the South China Sea are hardly obscure and sit at odds with calls for increased transparency. I didn't hear anyone at SLD welcoming China's strategy paper as a breakthrough in openness.

There are two points to make about the limits of transparency. First, transparency is neutral: official candour about capabilities and intentions does not necessarily ameliorate security concerns. The US military and political system can be embarrassingly transparent, but this does little to allay China's suspicions about American power. This gets to the second point, which is that military transparency works best when a rough parity applies, as during the Cold War. If there are significant differences in capabilities, as between China and the US, or between China and Southeast Asian states, there may be a risk that transparency augments insecurity in the weaker party.

Perhaps Ashton Carter gets this. The only reference in his speech at the Shangri-la Dialogue was a passing call for 'inclusive, open and transparent' regional security architecture, nothing more. Moreover, there was no detail behind his announcement of a new US Maritime Security Initiative for Southeast Asia beyond a headline figure of US$425 million for capacity building. Carter also promised a few surprises when it comes to the development of new high-tech US weapons. So much for transparency there.

Appeals by defence ministers for increased transparency in Asia are no doubt well intended. But as in all things, careful what you wish for.