Why Asia Is Much More Interesting Than Europe As A Laboratory For The Multipolar World

The annual Asian Shangri-La Dialogue security conference is one of the reasons why Asia is much more interesting than Europe as a laboratory for the multipolar world.

Chinese Defense Minister General Li Shangfu arrives at the Asian Security Forum ‘Shangri La Dialogue’. ©  Britta Pedersen / picture alliance via Getty Images

Last week, Singapore hosted the annual Asian Shangri-La Dialogue security conference. It has been organized for over 20 years by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies. 

It’s probably the most representative forum in the region, even though the agenda is set by Westerners. It’s also arguably still the most accurate indicator of the general Asian mood and is now beginning to dictate the general global atmosphere.

There were a couple of landmark events at the 2023 edition. Perhaps the most interesting was Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu’s refusal to meet Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin on the margins. The démarche was quite clear, although both ministers’ speeches expressed the unacceptability of confrontation, the consequences of which could be catastrophic. 

Washington and Beijing have opposing visions in their assessment of future possibilities. In the US, there is a clear and almost unanimous view that Beijing is a rival that must be reined in at almost any cost. And those that shape opinion believe it will get worse. 

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China is outraged that the US itself is dismantling a system of relations that has enriched both sides to their mutual satisfaction for decades. In Beijing’s view, the Americans are overstepping the bounds of reason by demanding that their Asian partners submit to their interests – or even whims. From Washington’s point of view, allowing China to continue to rise means having a challenger for world domination in the near future, with whom a clash is inevitable. Not a good position to be in. 

Thus, the paradox is that while both sides are openly preparing for confrontation, they are very wary of it. 

Neither side is confident of imminent success. Logically, China’s primary interest is to postpone the moment of conflict as long as possible, if it is to be seen as inevitable. After all, Beijing has always been a catch-up actor, and on the military side it has much less experience than the Americans. The latter, on the other hand, may assume that the sooner the relationship is clarified, the better their chances of success. 

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