William Choong For The Straits Times

14 years of giving it a go for regional security

Participants at the eighth Shangri-La Dialogue. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI
Participants at the eighth Shangri-La Dialogue. -- ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

NOT many observers of regional affairs will know that it was the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew who gave the much-needed push for the establishment of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the annual defence summit that will kick off its 14th edition tonight.

In 2001, Dr John Chipman, the director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), had a brainwave - compared to Europe, Asia did not have a defence forum which involved meetings of more than two defence ministers. So he sought the advice of Mr Lee. Mr Lee's curt answer: "Give it a go."

Fourteen years on, the Dialogue has come a long way. It also bears Mr Lee's imprimatur, given that the themes he espoused still resonate today.

Speaking at the first Dialogue in 2002, it was Mr Lee who noted that the immediate threats to South-east Asia were Muslims who had returned home after fighting with Al-Qaeda and Taleban forces in Afghanistan. Addressing the Dialogue in 2003, Mr Lee expressed his worry about the contending objectives of regional powers vis-a-vis North Korea.

But Mr Lee's biggest contribution to the Dialogue and regional security was his obsession with the regional power balance. Speaking at the 2008 inauguration of the Lee Kuan Yew Conference Room at Arundel House, the London headquarters of the IISS, he stressed that a stable global order would need support from all powers - America, the European Union, as well as China, India and Brazil as they grew and Russia as it turned more muscular.

So as Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses the Dialogue tonight, it is likely that he would reiterate these broad themes. In fact, having attended a decade's worth of Dialogues, I'd eat my hat if Mr Lee doesn't reiterate the importance of "open and inclusive" regionalism.

Speaking at the 2005 Dialogue, the younger Mr Lee stressed that Singapore believed that an "open regional architecture" would give all major powers a stake in Asia and produce a "stable, predictable regional order".

Today, regional order is supported by economic dynamism and institutions such as the Asean Defence Ministers' Meeting Plus, the East Asia Summit and the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Among them, the Dialogue is the forum of choice. In 2002, Mr Lee Kuan Yew spoke to 160 delegates. This year's Dialogue will see a tripling of that figure to approximately 480 delegates.

The tenor of the Dialogue has also changed since 2002. Europe is now well-represented, with the defence ministers of Germany, Spain, and the United Kingdom participating, as well as the European Union's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

More importantly, China is now playing a bigger role in the Dialogue - a forum it once feared as a Western-led, anti-China grouping.

Like last year, in 2015 China is sending one of the largest national delegations to the Dialogue. Its 18-strong delegation of senior military officers, officials and researchers will be led by Admiral Sun Jianguo, the first deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA).

While this is a step lower compared to 2011, when China sent its defence minister, it may be significant that Admiral Sun is a "four-star" officer, more senior in rank than Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, the three-star officer who led China's delegation last year. It is rumoured that Adm Sun is slated for promotion to China's Central Military Commission, the PLA's highest policymaking body.

Expect the three "Ts" of Asia-Pacific affairs - terrorism, trade policy, and territorial disputes - to be discussed this year.

Speaking in January at the Fullerton Forum - a senior officials' meeting for countries represented at the Dialogue - Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen echoed Mr Lee Kuan Yew's 2002 point when he spoke about the threat posed by "returning waves" of South-east Asian fighters from the wars in Iraq and Syria.

It is also likely that trade and broader geo-economic issues will be highlighted this year.

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter will probably offer Washington's mantra about America being a "resident Asia-Pacific power" and stress the durability of its "rebalance" to the region. He will harp on the attractiveness of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade deal which he says is as important as an aircraft carrier.

Adm Sun may expound on the peacefulness of China's rise (and again provoke a flurry of interventions from the floor). He would likely talk about China's desire to share the fruits of its economy, in the form of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and China's "one belt, one road" vision to link up the Middle East to China.

By far, the most explosive issue could be concern over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. At the Dialogue last year, the United States and China clashed openly over the latter's actions in the South China Sea.

Since then, China has been busy carrying out reclamation works in the Spratlys - sparking concerns that Beijing is presenting the region with a fait accompli. Only last week, a US Navy P-8 Poseidon patrol aircraft flying over the features was warned by the PLA to "leave immediately".

No matter what happens this weekend, one needs to see the Dialogue from a wider perspective - fireworks in the Island Ballroom do not stand in the way of tangible cooperation between great powers; at times, it can beat the path to greater cooperation.

Only months after the China-US spat at the 2014 Dialogue, US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping met in November and agreed on a technology deal, an accord to prevent accidental military clashes, as well as a joint plan to curb carbon emissions.

That said, the Shangri-La Dialogue cannot afford to rest on its laurels.

Late last year, China held the Xiangshan Forum, a security forum that some see as the Chinese analogue to the Shangri-La Dialogue.

While the emergence of more multilateral institutions such as the Xiangshan Forum could lead to unwieldy or "messy" regionalism, it is still better that more countries are "giving it a go", as the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew said, in building regional stability.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a Shangri-La Dialogue Senior Fellow at the IISS, which organises the Shangri-La Dialogue.