8 highlights of the Shangri-La Dialogue

The 13th IISS Asia Security Summit: The Shangri-La Dialogue took place last weekend in Singapore. Held against the backdrop of rising tensions over the region's territorial disputes, and an intensifying geostrategic tussle in the Asia-Pacific, this summit saw the most heated debates since it was started in 2002.

The Straits Times looks back at some of the highlights of the three-day forum, organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which was attended by 450 defence ministers, senior military officials and security experts from the Asia-Pacific and beyond.

1. Japan wants greater role in the region

Japan PM Shinzo Abe

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the keynote speaker at the opening of the forum on May 30. He expressed Japan's intention to play a bigger and more proactive role in ensuring peace and security in the region and pledged support for South-east Asian nations in their efforts to protect their territories.

In his address, the first by a Japanese leader at the forum, Mr Abe also dwelt at length on the need to observe international maritime laws.

Although Mr Abe did not directly name any country, there was little doubt that his speech was targeted at China as he repeatedly used language that Tokyo had employed in criticising Beijing's behaviour in the region's territorial disputes.

Read more:
No nation can secure peace on its own: Abe
Japan to take on bigger international security role, says PM Abe

2. US raps China, stresses Asia pivot

US Defence Chief Chuck Hagel

On the second day of the forum, US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel issued sharp criticisms at China for its "destabilising, unilateral actions" in asserting its territorial claims in the South China Sea. In unusually pointed remarks, Mr Hagel warned that Washington would not look the other way when fundamental principles of international order are being challenged.

Mr Hagel also reiterated Washington's commitment to the region, saying that "rebalancing to Asia-Pacific is a reality".

Read more:
US raps China over 'destabilising' acts
Hagel accuses China of 'destabilising actions', reiterates Washington's commitment to Asia

3. China hits back

China's Lt-Gen Wang Guanzhong

On the final day of the forum, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, deputy chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), hit back at Japan and the United States, lashing out at the two allies for their "provocations" against China.

In an unexpected deviation from his prepared speech, Mr Wang accused Mr Abe and Mr Hagel of ganging up against China, slamming them for using their speeches to attack Beijing. Their remarks were "unacceptable", "provocative" and went against the spirit of the from, the Chinese general said.

Read more:
China slams US, Japan over public criticism at forum
China slams US, Japan for 'provocative' remarks at Singapore forum

4. Sino-Viet spat in spotlight

Sino-Viet spat

The maritime dispute between China and Vietnam was a topic of interest at the forum. The spat was triggered by a Chinese oil rig deployed in disputed waters last month and escalated recently when a Chinese ship rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat in the area.

Vietnam's Defence Minister General Phung Quang Thanh told the forum that Hanoi will take Beijing to international court only as a "last resort", preferring to resolve the dispute through talks.

Madam Fu Ying, chairman of the Chinese Parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee, meanwhile said that Hanoi and Beijing have to find a solution themselves and that Washington should not interfere in this matter.

Read more:
Vietnam: Taking China to court 'last resort'
China, Vietnam must solve maritime spat themselves: Chinese official

5. Post-coup Thailand in focus

Thailand coup

Thailand, which is now ruled by a military government after a bloodless coup last month, was also in the spotlight at the forum. Mr Hagel had in his speech urged the coup leaders to release detainees, allow freedom of expression and call for elections soon.

In response, Mr Sihasak Phuangketkeow, Thailand's Acting Minister for Foreign Affairs who was leading the Thai delegation, said his country was not retreating from democracy. He said Thailand was undergoing political reforms before holding elections, and urged its strategic and economic partners to give it time.

Read more:
Thailand 'not abandoning democracy'

6. Charged atmosphere

Shangri-La Dialogue

The atmosphere at this year's forum was unusually tense amid the rising temperatures over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas.

Usually a cordial affair in which disagreements have always been politely couched, delegates have been far less shy about speaking their minds this year. Lieutenant-General Wang, who heads the PLA delegation, for example, described Mr Hagel's speech as "full of hegemonism, threat and intimidation".

Read more:
Regional disputes lead to tense atmosphere in forum

7. Asean-China ties strong

Asean-China ties

Mr Abe's expressed intention to build closer security ties with Asean will not worry China too much given its strong ties with the South-east Asian grouping, analysts say.

So far, Singapore and Indonesia have openly welcomed Mr Abe's move while other Asean member states, such as Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam who have territorial disputes with China, have mostly kept silent.

Read more:
Abe's aims in Asean not a worry for China

8. What's next?

Shangri-La Dialogue

While barbs and heated exchanges over territorial disputes and Japan's desire for a greater regional security role dominated this year's forum, the real elephant in the room is the question of how best to accommodate a rising China.

Singapore Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told delegates at the forum's closing session that it was an issue the region was still "grappling with".

One suggestion is to readjust the speaking slots so that the Chinese can have their say first, or even better, invite Chinese President Xi Jinping to be the keynote speaker for next year's forum.

Read more:
'Adjustments' necessary to cater for rising China

Asia Report dispute islands special report

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