Friday 05 Jun 2020 | 01:34 | SYDNEY
Friday 05 Jun 2020 | 01:34 | SYDNEY

Final thoughts from Shangri-La


Rory Medcalf


31 May 2009 20:19

To wrap-up my reporting from the Shangri-La Dialogue, a few highlights of day two.
First, a pleasant surprise: Pakistan's Secretary of Defence, Syed Athar Ali, was asked whether there was any chance of Pakistan and India cooperating in Afghanistan given their common interest in its stability. In reply, he said something along the lines of 'Yes, why not', and commented positively on India's role in Afghanistan's reconstruction — 'we never said the Indians shouldn't be there'.

It was nice to hear a Pakistani representative talking about these relationships without rehearsing tired allegations about the ulterior purpose of India's Afghan consulates. Mind you, there was no acknowledgement either of ISI's widely-credited role in bombing the Indian embassy in Kabul last year.
Australia's Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon put in an appearance, and in response to a few pointed questions from Chinese and American scholars about the Defence White Paper, suggested that Canberra's in-principle decision to acquire land-attack cruise missiles was 'a natural progression to another level of technology' from our decades-old possession of F-111 bombers for strategic strike.

He also asked the audience to 'keep some perspective': the plan was for Australia's defence spending to remain at only around two percent of GDP, even with a projection over the next decade of spending $43 billion more on capability acquisition than the Howard Government would have, had it stayed in power. Time, among other things, will tell whether all these statements can be true at once.
Finally, among the 357 delegates, there were mixed reviews of Kevin Rudd's opening night speech. I still consider it was far better than other of his foreign policy speeches I have encountered — this is the considered Asia-Pacific regionalism speech he should have given a year ago. It was a plus that he described regional defence spending in a measured and accurate way — terms like 'arms race' and 'arms explosion' were notably absent. And his hint that a future regional community might be informed by the ASEAN experience, rather than necessarily with ASEAN at its formal hub, was more cleverly calibrated than I think Graeme or some others give him credit for. 
But there were those in the room who were less than won over: some suggested Rudd gratuitously played up the G20 and the centrality of the global economic crisis ; others were unconvinced by his posing of a stark choice of futures, between an Asia-Pacific community or a prospect of catastrophic great-power war.

The question now is whether the expert conference on regionalism which he is promising for later this year will amount to much, or prove more to be a way of stretching out an appearance of diplomatic activism.