Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:29 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 05 Jul 2022 | 08:29 | SYDNEY

Shangri-La Dialogue snapshots


Graeme Dobell

4 June 2012 12:38


Things are shifting in Asia when a performance by Burma's Defence Minister is a highlight of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

That is highlight in a good way. Over the past couple of decades, Burma's public performances have tended to the dry and the deadpan, reflecting the deadly nature of the military regime. Burma's Defence Minister, Lieutenant General Hla Min, started his speech with some thoughts on the need for nations to change and transform to achieve both political freedom as well as economic prosperity. Then responding to questions, he delivered a series of verbal shell bursts:

  • Burma had abandoned its nuclear research program completely: 'In this new government, we have already given up all activities on nuclear issues, and we have no further plans to extend on this.'
  • The options opening up for Burma mean it no longer needs to rely on North Korea: 'Because of our opening and our new efforts we have stopped such relationship with North Korea.'
  • The military would be ready to dilute its constitutionally-guaranteed hold on a quarter of the seats in parliament: 'According to rules and regulations there are ways and means to improve on and change the constitutional articles; not as a dogma. So when the time is appropriate, there would be changes and this 25 percent participation could be reduced in future, if and when it is appropriate; and that I want to impress upon you.'
  • On the quotable quotes side, Hla Min came up with a fish-and-water metaphor for the need to make changes slowly: 'As for the 25 per cent participation in Parliament, to be frank, it is like, for example, if you have a fish in fresh water, you cannot put the fish in salt water, so we need to take time for transformation and progress.'

Things are certainly shifting inside the black box of Burma's regime. Other snapshots from Shangri-La:

  • The US Defence Secretary, Leon Panetta, gave an impressive performance, setting out some details of the Asia pivot ('The United States is at a strategic turning point after a decade of war'). The US Navy is at the point of the pivot: 'By 2020 the Navy will re-posture its forces from today's roughly 50/50 percent split between the Pacific and the Atlantic to about a 60/40 split between those oceans. That will include six aircraft carriers in this region, a majority of our cruisers, destroyers, Littoral Combat Ships, and submarines.'
  • One fascinating aside was Panetta's hope that the US will this year put aside decades of denial and ratify the Law of the Sea Convention. The need to get China to play by the rules in the South China Sea has really galvanised Washington.
  • Republican Senator John McCain, in the Shangri-La audience, told journalists that a President Mitt Romney could easily deliver the exact speech used by Panetta, based on 'peace through strength and good relations with China.' Perhaps Foreign Affairs is right and in this election year US foreign policy is again relatively bipartisan.
  • Singapore is firming its role as a formal US ally in all but name. But names matter. During the Panetta visit, Singapore confirmed the agreement to deploy up to four US Littoral Combat Ships to Singapore on a rotational basis. The first of the US ships will arrive in Singapore in the second quarter of next year. The rotational deployments mean that Singapore can argue that the ships will not be based or home-ported here.
  • New French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian was searching for quotes to help him make sense of what is happening in Asia. As so often for the French, he turned to Raymond Aron, with a line about the Cold War: 'It was an era of improbable war and impossible peace.' He didn't quite make the Aron-Asia connection, but his point seemed to be that 'the opposite of violence is politics.'
  • One of the first bits of post-Shangri-La commentary, from Eduardo Araral, Assistant Dean at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, managed the trick (both an ASEAN and US  trait) of turning the language of defence and strategy into a form of business-speak. Professor Araral reckons that the US and China have a '5C' dilemma. The Cs are: 'a credible commitment conundrum with Chinese characteristics'. Araral's rendering of this dilemma:

China, the rising power, has to credibly convince the US, the incumbent power, that it is not a threat to its security and will not undermine its core interests. Similarly, the US has to credibly convince China that it will not be contained and its core interests will not be harmed.