SINGAPORE — The 15th Asia Security Summit opened Friday in Singapore with a keynote speech by Thailand’s Prime Minister, retired general Prayut Chan-o-cha, who assured attendees that democracy would return to Thailand despite criticisms of that country’s 2014 military coup. He also said the constitution guaranteed an active role for the military in the country’s development. Delegates attending the speech traded amused looks, and occasional laughter could be heard, raising the question of whether his assurances are credible.

Commonly referred to as the Shangri-La Dialogue, run by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies think tank, the annual three-day summit has become an unofficial conclave for regional defense ministers, along with European and US military officials, to openly discuss and debate security matters.

The primary interest to delegates attending this year is China’s assertive activities in the South China Sea as it continues to gobble up islets and challenge the passage of US Navy ships and aircraft through the area.

The summit also serves as the last regional security meeting before an expected ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague on challenges by the Philippines to China’s claims to most of the South China Sea, an area roughly the size of India. A ruling is expected by the end of the summer, but China has already stated it does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction.

China and the US have sent large delegations to the summit this year. US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter will give the first speech at the opening of the summit. Expectations are high that Carter will contest China’s claims to the South China Sea and challenges to US military vessels and aircraft through the area.

There is debate at the summit among delegates as to whether China is planning the creation of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) for the South China Sea, which would further complicate the activity of US military aircraft patrolling the area. China created an ADIZ for the East China Sea in November 2013 and included the Japanese administered Senkaku Islets, which Beijing claims as sovereign territory.

Carter’s views are expected to be challenged by Chinese military and semi-official delegates attending the summit, but China’s delegation leader, Adm. Sun Jianguo, deputy chief, Joint State Department, Central Military Commission, will not speak until the third day on the challenges of conflict resolution.

A US Pentagon adviser said China is seeking to improve its crisis management skills to avoid another tragedy, such as the one in 2001 involving the collision of a Chinese fighter aircraft and a US military EP-3 Aries surveillance aircraft near Hainan Island.

This does not mean that members of the Chinese delegation will be silent; by far, the largest number of speakers are from China. These include Colonel Lu Yin, associate researcher, National Defense University; Ret. Major General Gong Xianfu, vice chairman, China Institute for International Strategic Studies; Senior Colonel Xu Qiyu, deputy director, Strategic Research Institute, National Defence University; Major General Yao Yunzhu, senior fellow, Academy of Military Science, will speak on the South China Sea issue; and Qing Yu, deputy director-general, Bureau of Cybersecurity, Cyberspace Administration of China.

However, during the first day, Manohar Parrikar, India’s Defense Minister, and Gen Nakatani, Japan’s Minister of Defense, will speak immediately after Carter’s opening speech. Both India and Japan have been challenged by China over territorial claims and assertive behavior, which have raised concerns that China’s military modernization effort is more than just defensive in nature.

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