Defence ministers and officials, armed forces chiefs and security analysts from 25 countries gathered in Singapore over the weekend for an annual Asia Security Conference organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).
Known also as the Shangri-la Dialogue, the conference is into its 6th year, and what was most significant this year was China’s high level participation.
Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, in his opening dinner speech to the dialogue participants highlighted some of the key challenges to global security. While noting that the overall outlook for Asia is positive, the souring of Sino-US relations over trade and Taiwan issue, major upheavals in Middle East and failure to manage climate change as economies develop, are all potential risks that can derail developments in Asia and impact regional and global security.
This year’s Dialogue was particularly vital because of several outstanding issues that continue to plague its participants. For example, the US used the Dialogue to reassure its Asian allies that, despite its heavy involvement in the Middle East, the US was not about to give up its presence in East Asia. It also wants to stay in the region as part of the global effort in combating terrorism. However, perhaps as a sign that US resources were stretched, the Americans also sought Asia’s help in helping to stabilize Afghanistan. Assistance particularly in the areas of governance, reconstruction and counter-narcotics were much needed. Secretary of Defence Robert Gates also expressed his hope that Asian countries could do much more in terms of economic development and counter-terrorism in Central Asian region.
Gates said: "Integrating these newly independent states into the fold of the greater Asian family is in the interest of every country represented in this room. Of course, the degree that Central Asian states and Afghanistan choose to integrate into greater Asia is a decision for each of those sovereign countries. We will not assume to make decisions for them, but it is important that the welcome mat be out for them. The failure to do so could ultimately have devastating results." He further noted that "Whatever your views on how we got to this point in Iraq, it is clear that a failed state in that part of the world would destabilise the region and embolden violent extremists elsewhere. The effects of chaos in either Central or Southwest Asia will not recognise national, continental or regional boundaries." "Overcoming violent extremists will require a long, sustained effort - measured in decades, rather than years. It is fundamentally an ideological struggle, where the appeal of principle and the power of example provided by secure, prosperous and tolerant societies will become the decisive edge."
The other major highlight at this year’s Dialogue was Sino-US’s frank discussion of their relationship and the problems that need to be iron out. China surprised everyone by dispatching high-ranking Lt. Gen. Zhang Qinsheng who holds a vice-ministerial rank to the Shangri-La Dialogue. This was taken as a signal of China’s new readiness to actively engage countries in the region on security and defence matters. Even more surprising and perhaps a sign of its growing confidence, Zhang gave a detailed breakdown of China’s military budget and signaled that China was ready to set up a military hot line with Washington, a request long made by the Americans. Zhang also reiterated "China shall never fire the first shot."
And in response to China’s overtures and reflecting the growing comfort level that the countries in Southeast Asian region have with China, Indonesia calls for widerChina and Japan role in helping secure the Malacca Strait – the world’s busiest sea lane. Prosperity of East Asia is heavily dependent on safety in the Malacca Straitsince the passageway accounts for 40% of global seaborne trade and half of the world’s oil shipments pass through the Strait.
The Americans also surprised everyone by taking a conciliatory attitude towards Chinese military power in the Dialogue. US officials side-stepped the recently-released Pentagon report which gave ample warnings of the threat posed by growing Chinese military power, including the relocation of long-range ballistic missiles from underground silos to land-based mobile launchers and submarines. “We don’t see any reason in getting bogged down in a discussion of that report,” said a senior defense official traveling with Mr. Gates, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The host Singapore also got speaking time with Indonesia. The defence ministers of the two countries were able to further discuss the Defence Cooperation Agreement signed earlier and currently under review by the Indonesian parliament. Indonesian defence minister Juwono Sudarsono told the media that he expects all outstanding issues holding up the defence agreement to be ironed out by end of next week, which would pave the way for ratification. He also highlighted that he had explained to his Indonesian colleagues in the parliament who expressed concern over sovereignty issues that in a globalized world, there is no absolute sovereignty and that the defence cooperation agreement is a good starting point for bilateral cooperation towards tremendous symbiotic relationship.
An important outcome of the Dialogue was the agreement by all the defence ministers attending the dialogue on the need for a robust and inclusive security architecture to promote cooperation between nations to confront the various transnational issues from maritime security to terrorism and climate change. (4 June 2007)
Treaty issues to be resolved soon, says Indonesian minister (Straits Times, 4 June 2007)
China’s high level participation welcomed (Straits Times, 4 June 2007)
US offers to discuss missile defence plans with China (Straits Times, 4 June 2007)
US-Asean meet slated for Sept 5 (Nation, 3 June 2007)
ASEAN urged to develop military links with China, Japan (Jakarta Post, 3 June 2007)
Asian nations witness unexpected US-China cordiality (Jakarta Post, 3 June 2007)
Shangri-La Dialogue: Ministers say security architecture must be inclusive (Channelnewsasia, 2 June 2007)
US calls for more Asian engagement in Central Asian states (Chaanelnewsasia, 2 June 2007)
Gates Offers to Work With China’s Military (NY Times, 2 June 2007)
Working together to confront global challenges (Straits Times, 2 June 2007)
China wants more euros in forex reserves: report (Channelnewsasia, 1 June 2007)
Gates urges China to explain military intentions (Straits Times, 1 June 2007)