19th Shangri-La Dialogue, scheduled for June, called off due to coronavirus outbreak

Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen speaking during the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue at Shangri-La Hotel on June 2, 2019. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - This year's Shangri-La Dialogue - a top-level regional security forum hosted by Singapore - will no longer be held from June 5 to 7 as scheduled due to the coronavirus outbreak.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which organises the annual forum, said it has decided in close consultation with the Singapore Government not to convene this year's edition.

The Straits Times had first reported on the forum's cancellation, based on sources familiar with the matter.

In a statement on Friday (March 27), the London-based IISS noted that many countries have imposed travel restrictions in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, which may still be in force in early June.

"Given that the Dialogue draws participation from more than 40 countries, many of which have imposed such restrictions, the IISS has decided that the only sensible course at this point is to notify delegates and other interested parties that the event will not take place this year," the institute said.

"We will shortly begin work to ensure an exceptionally strong IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in 2021," it added.

This marks the first time that the annual Shangri-La Dialogue has been called off since it was first launched in 2002. It is usually held in June at the Shangri-La Hotel.

On its part, Singapore took the unprecedented step of not allowing short-term visitors to enter or transit through the country from Monday (March 23), to reduce the risk of importing Covid-19 cases.

The authorities also announced on Tuesday (March 24) that all events and mass gatherings, such as conferences, festivals, and sporting events, must be deferred or cancelled until at least April 30, regardless of size. Previously, they were to be limited to fewer than 250 participants.

In a Facebook post, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said it would be a significant challenge to hold the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) as scheduled in early June, looking at the course of the Covid-19 pandemic.

"Government leaders and delegations from nearly 40 countries attend this premier security dialogue, so it's important to give advance notice now. I thank all our defence partners for their strong support to Singapore and the SLD over the years. We look forward to resuming the SLD next year," he said.

This year would have been the 19th edition of the talks organised by the IISS. The forum gathers top defence officials from around the world to discuss security issues affecting the region, such as maritime security and regional stability.

Bilateral meetings and courtesy calls usually take place on its sidelines, and it is credited with building confidence and fostering practical cooperation among its participants.

Last year's event had involved 33 ministerial-level delegates, more than 30 chiefs of defence force and senior defence officials, and academics from 47 countries.

Among them were then US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, as well as representatives from the United Kingdom, Australia, Malaysia and South Korea.

Mr David Boey, a member of the Ministry of Defence's Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, told ST that the meeting would be untenable as it is uncertain how long countries will close their borders in response to the rapidly evolving Covid-19 situation.

Even if delegates can get to Singapore when airline flights have dried up, defence ministers and armed forces chiefs are likely to be heavily engaged in their home nation's efforts to fight the virus, he added.

Mr Boey also noted that event highlights such as courtesy calls and close mingling between delegates cannot take place as before during this period of social distancing.

"As the absence of such activities would dilute the value of the security talks, it is understandable and prudent for the event to be postponed."

He noted that issues such as the South China Sea, sea piracy, and the threat of terrorism remain pertinent even as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

"It is important for... efforts such as the Shangri-La Dialogue to stay active, perhaps by video conference or online workshops on topical security issues, to keep potential flashpoints in check."

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