The Shanghai-La Dialogue was first conceived by the Director-General and Chief Executive Director, Sir John Chipman, of the International Institute of Strategic Security in 2001 to provide a forum for the defense officials and military chiefs to discuss world issues on strategic strategy. The first Summit was held at the Shanghai-La hotel in Singapore in 2002 and followed annually ever since thus known as Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). The first meeting was attended by 12 countries and it grew gradually with attendees moving up in official positions, first to vice ministers level then minister level and then included keynote speakers of head of state in addition to that of the host country, Singapore.
It was in 2007, China first sent a delegation headed by Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng of the People’s Liberation Army with ranking equivalent to vice-minister level. In 2009, the Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, gave a keynote speech at SLD and opened the precedence of sideline bilateral meetings between defense ministers to conclude agreements. That year in SLD, Australia and Singapore agreed allowing Singapore’s army to use Australia’s military training facilities for another decade. In 2010, the President of the Republic of Korea, Lee Myung-Bak was the invited keynote speaker. In 2011, it is notable that the discussion topics expanded beyond military matters and for the first time focused on the South China Sea (SCS) Issue. The U.S. defense Minister, Robert Gates, reiterated at SLD the commitment of the U.S. to the Asia Pacific (AP) region. As an outgoing defense minister, he raised a bet of $100 with anyone to proclaim that he predicts the influence of the U.S. would be stronger than today in the next five years. Of course $100 is a joke, so insignificant, considering the U.S. strategy in the AP region. Today, the attending countries of SLD grew to 28 nations. The agenda has elevated far beyond talks of military weapon development and sales. In a White Paper issued by China in 2010, it has cited SLD as one of her avenues to participate in regional security cooperation.
This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was held from May 31-June 2 with 28 country delegates and 16 keynoters, including Singapore Prime Minister Lee and 15 Defense Ministers or Secretary or Representatives, Patrick M. Shanahan (US), Wei Fenghe (China), Jeong Kyeon-Doo (SK), Takeshi Iwaya (Japan), Federica Magherini (EU), Haji Mohamad Sabu (Malaysia), Penny Mordaunt (UK), Florence Parly (France), Hariton Singh Sajjan (Canada), Ngo Xuan Lich (Vietnam), Delfin Lorenzana (Philippine), Linda Reynolds (Australia), Ryanizard Ryacudu (Indonesia), Ron Mark (NZ), and Eng Hen Ng (Singapore). Observing the 18th Shangri-La Dialogue, it is significant to point out that four of the above 16 keynoters are female, hopefully signifying more peaceful cooperation in the future.
In examining the speeches delivered at the SLD, one does find a change of tone, perhaps a more explicit expression of sentiments on the security issue. First of all, Singapore’s President Lee Xian Long, made an excellent speech tracing from the history to today’s international relations. He emphasized that it was the openness in trade and interaction that had brought prosperity to the region, not just Singapore as a free trade port but also to the entire Asia Pacific. He made observations on the US-China Trade War and implied its ill consequences. He warned to avoid hardened attitudes and pled for peaceful discussion and resolution on the trade issues. He expressed the wishes of not only Singapore, the ASEAN countries, but also the entire Asia that their desire is to pursue continued globalization, respecting multilateralism rather than being pressured to take sides on any conflict between great nations. His implication was clear, although Singapore is an ally of the U.S., he does not wish to see the U.S. and China prolonging their trade conflicts and expanding into other domains. His tone and of others are that competition is unavoidable among nations but it must be maintained as healthy competition.
The speech delivered by Patrick Shanahan, the new Defense Minister of the U.S., was a prepared speech emphasizing the wish of the U.S. to project her presence in Indo-Pacific Ocean. His speech although not naming names was clearly targeting China and calling her allies in the region to side with the U.S. to stop the rise of China however with little legitimate reasons. Shanahan did not modify his speech after hearing President Lee’s keynote speech which contained an obvious purpose to moderate any hostility between the U.S. and China and any conflicts in SCS. China’s Representative, General Wei Feng He, delivered his prepared speech defending China’s peaceful rise policy and her pursuit of globalization and multilateralism. Wei responded to President Lee and Mr. Shanahan’s speeches and inserted his comments which was not shy to hint that the U.S. intrusion under the name of “Freedom of Navigation” in the Indo-Pacific especially the SCS was the cause of instability of security in the region. Wei stressed that China will seriously defend her sovereignty rights and she has rights to strengthen her defense in SCS or elsewhere especially when facing threat.
Overall the other speeches were moderate containing a few echoes from official ally’s position stressing the desire to maintain stability and willingness to cooperate in maintaining the regional security. If one had to draw a conclusion, it might be said that there was no clear signal in taking sides or making threats in the speeches other than the U.S. and China exchanging a few barbs. Hopefully, when the delegates at SLD return to their countries that they will convey the genuine tone of the 2019 SLD - it is the region’s wish that the two great nations, the U.S. and China, will soften their hostile attitudes and carry on a healthy competition benefitting the world. It has been said clearly, confrontation between the U.S. and China will lead to instability and no country in the region wishes to see it happen. The Asian countries do not wish nor have the will to form a NATO-like alliance to replicate another Cold War!