5 highlights of Shangri-La Dialogue 2016

Admiral Sun Jianguo, China's deputy chief of general staff of the People's Liberation Army, speaking at the Shangri-La Dialogue. PHOTO: REUTERS

This year's edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue, one of the world's top security forums, drew to a close on Sunday (June 5) after three days of frenetic plenary sessions, bilateral meetings and informal chats among 602 defence ministers, officials, academics and corporate executives.

We look back at some of the annual event's highlights:

SPOTLIGHT: SOUTH CHINA SEA

No other issue dominated the event like the territorial spat over the South China Sea (SCS) did. The focus was more intense than last year when China had temporarily stopped land reclamation on reefs and atolls and had yet to build many military facilities. In the year since, China has stepped up maritime patrols across the waterway and built up a series of military bases on small islands it reclaimed from the ocean. It has also repeatedly said it will not recognise the ruling of a UN arbitration court on its dispute with the Philippines.

During the forum, defence ministers from the US, Britain, France, Canada, and India all called for China to respect international law and uphold freedom of navigation and overflight in the South China Sea, which hosts vital global shipping lanes.

BUZZWORD: 'PRINCIPLED'

US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter mentioned "principled" 24 times in his speech on Saturday. He called for countries in the Asia Pacific to come together to build a "principled security network" - a web of bilateral, trilateral, and multilateral partnerships that advances shared values and facilitates resource-sharing - as he warned China was erecting a "Great Wall of self-isolation" in the South China Sea dispute.

"The United States is fully committed to this principled security network and to the Asia-Pacific's principled future," said Mr Carter. Some analysts say that the US has finally found a catchall concept to capture its vision for the Asia-Pacific.

CHINA HITS BACK

Admiral Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of China's Central Military Commission and head of the Chinese delegation, was, in the words of French defence chief Jean-Yves Le Drian, the "star" of the forum.

Besides coming under heat from several defence ministers over China's tough stance over the South China Sea, the 63-year-old was also peppered with questions from other delegates on the SCS as well as North Korea during the plenary session on Sunday, when he took to the podium.

Adm Sun, who was attending the Shangri-La Dialogue for the second year running, parried the punches with a few choice quotes of his own.

"We were not isolated in the past, we are not isolated now and we will not be isolated in the future," he said. "Actually I am worried that some people and countries are still looking at China with the Cold War mentality and prejudice. They may build a wall in their minds and end up isolating themselves."

RECALLING MR LEE KUAN YEW

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen evoked the late Mr Lee in his speech on the final day of the Shangri-La Dialogue. Mr Lee had addressed the inaugural SLD in 2002, during which he spoke about the US-China relationship and global terrorism. While the situation has evolved, said Dr Ng, the two issues remain the "most important security challenges" that confront this region.

"That speech was vintage LKY - the acuity of his perceptions and raw assessments shone through," Dr Ng told the forum.

MILITARY PRECISION

Organised by the Singapore Government and the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue drew a total of 602 delegates including 30 ministers from 35 countries, as well as more than 2,000 support staff, journalists and other personnel.

In 2002, the forum, also known as the Asia Security Summit, drew 161 delegates from 22 countries.

Yet all the five plenary sessions this year started right on schedule. IISS Director-General and Chief Executive John Chipman, who moderated the sessions, joked that having men in uniform as attendees ensured punctuality with "military precision".

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