Shangri-La Dialogue resumes in S'pore, Ukraine president Zelensky to give special address

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is scheduled to give a special virtual address at the Dialogue on June 11, 2022. PHOTOS: FELINE LIM, EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - Asia's top security summit returns to Singapore this weekend after a two-year pandemic hiatus, with the first face-to-face meeting between American and Chinese defence leaders and Russia's invasion of Ukraine among the most anticipated items on the agenda.

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is also scheduled to deliver on Saturday (June 11) a special virtual address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, organised by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

Observers expect the forum to shed light on the United States’ and China’s thinking and posture in relation to the region.

Also of interest will be the regional security implications as countries take stock of their recovery from Covid-19, which led to the cancellation in 2020 and 2021 of an otherwise annual affair in Singapore for the last 20 years.

Over Friday to Sunday (June 10-12), some 500 delegates from 42 countries - including more than 60 ministers and senior defence officials - will gather in person at the eponymous Shangri-La hotel in downtown Orchard Road for speeches, debates and, as per tradition, private huddles on the sidelines of the event.

In a statement on Thursday (June 9), Singapore's Ministry of Defence (Mindef) said the Dialogue "has provided a valuable, open, and neutral platform for the exchange of perspectives on defence and security issues and initiatives".

The IISS’ Asia executive director James Crabtree said the arrival of many defence ministers shows Singapore retains a central position in helping to facilitate security diplomacy, not just in South-east Asia but in the wider region.

He added that the Dialogue was a place for senior defence figures to propose constructive solutions to regional issues – “something that has rarely been more necessary at a moment of declining trust and rising tensions between China and the US”.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will kick off proceedings on the first day with an address covering his country's changing strategic outlook, regional repercussions of the war in Ukraine and the Asia-Pacific's security challenges. The last Japanese premier to be keynote speaker at the Dialogue was Mr Shinzo Abe in 2014.

On Saturday, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will speak on Washington's defence policy in the Indo-Pacific; before Chinese Minister of National Defence Wei Fenghe delivers a speech on Sunday on China's vision for regional order in the Asia-Pacific.

The duo are slated to meet to discuss ways to manage competition between the superpowers, amid bristling tensions over a plethora of issues from Taiwan to Beijing's military moves in the South China Sea.

Generals Austin and Wei spoke over the phone in April, weeks before US President Joe Biden angered the Chinese administration when he said the US would get involved militarily if China invaded Taiwan, which Beijing views as a breakaway province to be brought back to the fold by force if necessary.

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The Shangri-La Dialogue has previously been tapped as a venue for US and Chinese military leaders to meet and attempt to mitigate ongoing hostilities. For instance, in 2019, Gen Wei spoke with then acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

Assistant Professor Dylan Loh from Nanyang Technological University's Public Policy and Global Affairs division said that while expectations would be low for any substantial outcome from this year's meeting, he hoped it would be a small step in restoring more frequent lines of communication between the US and China.

Prof Loh listed three things to watch for: A clearer articulation of the US' Indo-Pacific strategy, which has not been fully fleshed out yet; whether China can convincingly spell out its own view of a regional order; and how Mr Kishida's speech may point to Japan playing a larger security role in the region.

From June 10-12, some 500 delegates from 42 countries will gather in person at the Shangri-La hotel (above). ST PHOTO: FELINE LIM

Mr Steven Okun, a senior advisor at geostrategic consultancy McLarty Associates who is based in Singapore, noted that leaders in South-east Asia have made their preferences very clear to both the Chinese and US governments.

"We do not want to be forced to choose having diplomatic or economic relations with one or the other," he said, adding that the business community would also be watching this year's Dialogue to see how the superpowers position themselves, particularly in the wake of the US launching its Indo-Pacific Economic Framework last month as an alternative to China's growing commercial presence in the region.

The conflict in Ukraine has further cemented the US and China as leaders of rival geopolitical blocks, as Mr Crabtree pointed out in an analysis in the IISS on Monday.

Ukrainian deputy foreign minister Dmytro Senik is expected to attend the Dialogue, along with Dutch Admiral Rob Bauer, military committee chair of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato), the US-led military alliance in Europe.

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Gen Austin is also scheduled to meet with South Korean Defence Minister Lee Jong-sup as well as engage in trilateral talks with Mr Lee and their Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi, though the East Asian neighbours have no plan to speak bilaterally.

Korean news agencies say Mr Lee also plans to meet Gen Wei; with a focus on addressing North Korea's latest barrage of ballistic missile tests.

Both the US and China share concerns that these moves may prelude a first nuclear weapon test since 2017.

Elsewhere, Cambodian defence minister Tea Banh is expected to meet with Gen Austin and other officials on the back of a Washington Post report on China secretly building a naval facility in Cambodia.

The US and its allies fear that China plans to add to the one foreign military outpost it currently has - in Djibouti, Africa - with a new base in Sihanoukville, off the Gulf of Thailand and adjacent to the strategic South China Sea waterway.

Related concerns around geopolitical competition form the core themes for a total of seven plenary sessions over the three-day forum, which will conclude on Sunday with a speech by Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen on new ideas for securing regional stability.

Dr Ng will also host visiting ministers to roundtable discussions on Saturday and Sunday, and conduct bilateral meetings with ministers and senior officials from various countries on the sidelines of the Dialogue, said Mindef.

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