Speaking Of Asia

Ageless issues at Shangri-La as regional sands shift

In its 15th year, the annual conclave of defence chiefs is more relevant than ever

A fortnight from now defence ministers and chiefs from more than two dozen nations will again descend on Singapore for their annual conclave, the Asian Security Conference, better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue. This one promises to be special not just because it is the 15th in the series but also because of the widely anticipated ruling by the international tribunal at The Hague that will soon pronounce on the Philippines' query on the validity of Chinese claims to most of the South China Sea.

And since it is not only the Philippines but also Vietnam, Malaysia, Taiwan and Brunei that also lay claim to islands in these waters, and the US is firmly committed to ensuring freedom of navigation in what it takes as the global commons, there also is more than usual interest in this weekend's visit to Hanoi by US President Barack Obama.

The first African-American president of the US is likely to get a hero's welcome in the Vietnamese capital that's even bigger than the one accorded the previous Democrat president, Mr Bill Clinton, in 2000. And it is an easy bet that it will hugely surpass the lukewarm reception accorded last year to Chinese President Xi Jinping.

When a people can put aside memories of Agent Orange and of Kim Phuc, the screaming nine-year-old girl memorably photographed fleeing in terror after being seared in a napalm bombing, and move on to embrace the power that caused them so much misery, you know how much the sands have shifted in Asia.

In turn, the US will probably lift significant restrictions on weapons exports to those little people in the conical hats who so embarrassed it on the battlefield four decades ago. Indeed, after his overtures to Cuba and Iran, Mr Obama may even go further with Vietnam than with the other two. "Under the rebalance we've promoted an extraordinary reconciliation with two former enemies," US Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Russel said on Wednesday. "You'll see that on this visit, as the President visits two nations with whom we've fought bitter wars, that we've now built an extraordinary record of cooperation and of partnership."

How did things get to this stage? The shifting themes over the years at the Shangri-La Dialogue hosted by think-tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and backed by the Singapore Government, are a useful pointer.


The inaugural meeting, in 2002, had taken place with terrorism as the key focus, coming in the wake of the massive jolt the world received with the Sept 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. Japan did not even have a full-fledged defence ministry at the time. The Chinese were nowhere to be seen. What of the US? Well, they sent Mr Paul Wolfowitz, the deputy defence secretary, not his boss.

Al-Qaeda was the main danger then. The attack on Bali, which brought terrorism so much into Asia's focus, was yet to take place. The Americans hadn't yet toppled President Saddam Hussein in Iraq. The Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which, in some ways, was a result of the subsequent collapse of the Iraqi state, had not been conceived. But those who knew something of the world recognised the danger of that action early. At the 2003 meeting, Mr Lee Kuan Yew presciently warned that the kind of government and society that emerges in Iraq will have a profound influence on all Arab nations, and a spillover effect on non-Arab Muslims.

"The possibility of a more fundamentalist Iraq is real - Iraqi Shi'ites form 60 per cent of the population," he had said at the time.

It is interesting to note that the US pivot to Asia, subsequently called "rebalance", was not even a glimmer in anyone's eye. In fact, talk then was of "realigning" US forces in Asia in order to have small forces more widely distributed.

Mr Wolfowitz, asked about the Philippines, responded that the US wants its main points of military access to be "in countries where we have traditionally strong ties and which welcome us. The Philippines told us to go. I don't expect them to want us back."

Indeed, some Asean states like Malaysia and Indonesia were not too thrilled about the US Navy patrolling the Malacca Strait under its Regional Maritime Security Initiative. Japan those days was still pussyfooting around China, sending Mr Shigeru Ishiba to China for the first visit by a Japanese defence minister in five years.

By 2005, of course, the China worry had begun to show. US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, attending his second Shangri-La Dialogue, had started speaking bluntly on China's military build-up, alleging Beijing was not transparent on its defence spending and its purpose.

"Since no nation threatens China, one wonders: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases?" he asked. The remarks suggested the increasingly tough stance towards China by the George W. Bush administration, following disagreements over trade, currency and human rights issues. What Mr Rumsfeld did not mention, of course, was that the US had already plans in the works to strengthen the operational control of the Pacific Command, enhance US forces in Guam and tighten the alliance with Japan. And there was one more factor: The US was soon going to sign a landmark civil nuclear agreement with India with wide strategic ramifications. Since last year, the IISS has started referring to the Asia-Pacific region as "Indo-Pacific", a nuanced but important change.

The Rumsfeld remarks, and a robust response from Chinese diplomat Ciu Tiankai, would be the forerunner for some spirited exchanges between the two powers in the years to follow. The emerging perceptions of Chinese power would also lead the US to re-energise its relationship with South-east Asia after a period of mild neglect during Mr Bush's first term. By the fifth Shangri-La Dialogue, in 2006, Mr Rumsfeld was already talking of "leaning forward and staying engaged with this part of the world". The US was also taking steps to winkle itself into the East Asia Summit, which it would do in 2011.

The world began to sit up and take notice of this annual meeting in Singapore. From 17 nations that attended the inaugural summit, the 2007 meeting would attract 25, including new entrants Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Germany. This was not lost on China, which too raised its level of representation from the 2007 meeting, when it sent Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA). Lt-Gen Zhang would be the first Chinese to address the security summit, a small signal of China's increased self-confidence as it prepared to host the Olympic Games, its coming-out party, so to speak.

By that year, Japan had elevated its defence apparatus to a full defence ministry. On the sidelines of the annual meeting, the US, Japan and Australia held their first trilateral talks. It was clear that regardless of whoever succeeded Mr Bush in the White House in the following year's elections, the direction of US policy would be hard to shake, never mind that Dr Condoleeza Rice, as secretary of state, had missed several Asean summits, thanks to preoccupations elsewhere.

The widening differences between the world's two major powers were out in the open by 2010, when US defence secretary Robert Gates sparred verbally at the summit with General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA. Mr Gates had chided China for suspending military contacts with the US over its arms sales to Taiwan. Gen Ma fired back, accusing the US of "interfering".

Beijing had pointedly declined to invite Mr Gates during his Asia swing. While the US arms sales to Taiwan were the stated reason for the discord, other developments had clouded the horizon: China had, months earlier, published its nine-dash-line claims to the South China Sea while US secretary of state Hillary Clinton had declared at an Asean Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi that the South China Sea concerned America's "national interest" and should be resolved in a multilateral fashion "without coercion".

The gloves, clearly, were coming off. In 2012, defence secretary Leon Panetta used the Shangri -La Dialogue to detail the US rebalance to Asia. The US Navy will reposition 60 per cent of its warships in Asia by 2020, he said, including six aircraft carriers, destroyers, combat ships and submarines. The US would also increase the number and size of the training exercises it conducts alongside its allies in the region.

"We are not naive about the relationship and neither is China," Mr Panetta told the delegates.

And so there it stands. Last year, shortly before he delivered a conciliatory speech towards China at the summit, Defence Secretary Ash Carter flew in a VF-22 Osprey over the Malacca Strait, a key chokepoint, to emphasise the importance of freedom of navigation in the seas. He did so in the wake of some dramatic island-building by China in the disputed waters that prompted several tough statements from the American, including some made from the US Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii. The mixing of the tough and the soft messaging was clearly deliberate.

For its part, Beijing cleverly timed its Defence White Paper for just before the summit, sketching out China's military strategy for the first time. Aware that the summit would be seized by its land reclamation activity in the South China Sea, it sent an admiral, deputy chief of the PLA general staff Sun Jianguo, to head its delegation. The Shangri-La Dialogue was clearly serving its purpose as a gathering of the top defence and security policymakers of the region to discuss their differences and develop a sense of community.

Back in 2007 it was decided that the Shangri-La Dialogue would be continued until 2011. Today, it is headed for its 15th summit. If imitation is the highest form of flattery, the IISS and its backer, the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs, can look on amusedly as others seek to emulate the meeting. China upgraded its Xiangshan Forum in 2014 to a so-called Track 1.5 process. India this February launched its Raisina Dialogue. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war, Winston Churchill famously said. There is no question that the jaw-jaws of the past 15 years in Singapore have contributed to avoiding some eyeball-to-eyeball situations.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 20, 2016, with the headline 'Ageless issues at Shangri-La as regional sands shift'. Print Edition | Subscribe