Hundreds of defense officials are meeting in Singapore this weekend to talk about managing the widely contested, resource-rich South China Sea. That’s what the agenda says at least. The forum might actually turn into a verbal water fight over what everyone should do about China after a United Nations court rules sometime this month whether Beijing has rights to about 95% of the sea including militarization of its islets.

China rejects the U.N. arbitration process initiated by the Philippines, which is tipped to get its way. Beijing prefers to talk with its six militarily weaker rival maritime claimants one on one about managing the sea rather than with groups including the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations. A model for its cause is Malaysia, a South China Sea claimant that seldom complains about China due to Beijing’s heavy investments in the country.

US Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter (C) arrives for the opening keynote address by Thai Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha at the 15th International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 3, 2016. (ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
But China has come out in force at the three-day meeting in Singapore, a 15-year-old annual event called the Shangri-La Dialogue. The event could become a rare but timely face-off between Beijing’s top brass and nervous peers from less powerful Asian countries.
Today the Shangri-La Dialogue will offer a session on managing South China Sea tensions. The broader forum expects to 550 participants from 32 countries. Those at the South China Sea session can “clarify national policies, air differences of perspective, and find areas of agreement and potential cooperation,” says Tim Huxley, executive director of IISS-Asia. IISS, a British military-political conflict think tank, organizes the Shangri-La Dialogue.
“China has sent more senior people to the event each year, so there’s much attention on what is and what’s not China’s goal,” says Song Seng-wun, economist in the private banking unit of CIMB in Singapore. Malaysia and Vietnam, another aggressive South China Sea user, were scheduled to send military heads to the event, as well.