Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:35 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 07:35 | SYDNEY

Asian security: Long climb to Shangri-La


Graeme Dobell

1 June 2012 15:18

Asia does some things differently. So the biggest annual gathering of Asia Pacific defence ministers and officials is a public-private partnership between the Singapore Government and a British think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, sponsored by worthy companies such as Boeing and Mitsubishi.

Then there's the name, the Shangri-La Dialogue, which adds a touch of lyrical serendipity to the hard choices and hardware calculations of military brass and their masters. Shangri-La is not where the strategic hard-heads think Asia is heading any time soon; it's the name of the Singapore hotel where it will all happen again this weekend for the 11th time.

In the novel Lost Horizon, Shangri-La is a mythical utopia somewhere in the Himalayas. Singapore does add one Himalayan element to the conference through its use of members of the Gurkha contingent, a military presence in Singapore for more than 50 years. The Shangri-La Hotel is ringed by well-armed Gurkhas plus scores of police and all the paraphernalia of the modern multilateral ministerial: sniffer dogs, the mirror check under cars, the metal detectors and the plain-clothes chaps with earpieces and broad shoulders. It's all impressive security, and then the Americans arrive!

The privatised defence dialogue will this year draw 27 delegations from the Asia Pacific and beyond, involving defence ministers, chiefs of defence staff, security analysts, and military and intelligence chiefs. The keynote address will be delivered by Indonesia's President, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, while US Defence Secretary Leon Panetta is jetting in, maintaining the annual habit followed since Donald Rumsfeld first attended in 2004.

Shangri-La is a great aid to synchronising ministerial calendars. With everyone in the same hotel, the bilaterals bloom like Singapore orchids. In one weekend, Panetta can hold meetings with counterparts from Singapore, Japan, South Korea, Australia and several others. Then he heads on to visit Vietnam and India. 

Shangri-La says some interesting things about the nascent nature of defence transparency in Asia. Not least, this think tank talkfest that has the clothes of summit has made it possible for regional defence establishments to gather at something like a multilateral setting. This ranks as a notable achievement for Asia.

As the Cold War ended, the Asia Pacific did create a government-level security dialogue, the ASEAN Regional Forum. But the Forum is run by Foreign Ministers. ASEAN, which jealously guards its right to be in the driving seat of such endeavours, couldn't get all its own Defence Ministers together until 2006, well after Shangri-La was born in 2002. 

In an appropriate bit of calendar synchronising, the sixth ASEAN Defence Ministers' meeting took place in Cambodia this week. The ten ASEAN ministers agreed to up the tempo of their meetings with their eight 'Plus' partners (Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Russia and the US). The first ASEAN-Plus defence talks happened in 2010; the second meeting will be next year. After that, the ASEAN-Plus talks will happen every two years instead of having a three year gap. Do you start to get a feel for why a privately-run defence summit has been able to take centre stage?

Part of Shangri-La's progress has been its slow acceptance, if not embrace, by China. Initially, Beijing didn't like what it saw as a creation with a big Anglo-American flavour. But not turning up didn't work too well; ditto for not sending top military brass. So from 2007, the PLA's deputy Chief of the General Staff led the delegation and to give a plenary presentation. And finally, last year, China's Defence Minister turned up.

Liang Guanglie is a no-show in Singapore this year. The Defence Minister preferred to talk to his ASEAN counterparts in Cambodia, where he could express China's displeasure at recent events in the South China Sea in bilateral meetings – especially in the two-way with the Philippines.

Shangri-La shouldn't discomfort Beijing too much. Ministers don't have to announce anything nor issue a formal concluding statement. This is the summit that makes a virtue out of not having official achievements. Like the ASEAN Regional Forum, Shangri-La is still noodling along at the first level, doing dialogue and confidence-building.

After SBY's speech on Friday night, the morning sessions on Saturday on 'US defence policy in an era of austerity' (opened by Panetta), followed by 'Protecting maritime freedoms' and 'Deterrence and regional stability'. With that as the public part, the private sessions that follow get a bit more specific, with one devoted to 'Containing the South China Sea disputes'.

All this talk matters because Asia's military mass is building. As IISS notes, Asia's defence spending this year is set to exceed Europe's for the first time in modern history.
 Thus, for IISS, Shangri-La is in the right place at the right time. This is the think tank version of the golden wonk trifecta: an agenda of policy issues of clear and compelling importance, the attention and attendance of key official players, and a wonderful cash generator.

 Photo by Flickr user chooyutshing.