When the world’s defence minds last gathered in Singapore’s Shangri-La Hotel to discuss the big issues affecting the world, a sense of unease coursed through the room.

“Our world is at a turning point. Globalisation is under siege. Tensions between the US and China are growing. Like everyone else, we in Singapore are anxious,” the country’s prime minister Lee Hsien Loong told the Shangri-La Dialogue audience in 2019.

Three years on, that sense of anxiety has if anything grown rather than abated, thanks to first the Covid-19 pandemic then Russia’s ongoing war in Ukraine.

Dr Euan Graham, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at the International Institute for Strategic Studies – which organises the three-day event, starting on Friday – says war in Ukraine has “redrawn the geopolitical map in many ways”, placing hard security and the risk of war between states on the agenda in a much more tangible way.

“One of the things that the Shangri-La Dialogue has successfully done over the years is to bring Europe and Asia together to discuss their common security interests – that will be given a very sharp edge this year because of the Russian invasion.”

Graham points to the differing responses to the conflict within Asia, with some countries far more ready to call out Russian behaviour than others, as a potential point of division for the region.

It’s a view shared by David Capie, the director of the Centre for Strategic Studies at Victoria University of Wellington, who notes most Southeast Asian states aren’t on the “sanctions bandwagon” despite talk of the international community’s joined-up response to the war.

Capie says there is a degree of frustration from some in the Indo-Pacific, such as India, that the focus on Ukraine is coming at the expense of security issues in their region.

That may create a delicate balancing act for US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who in his address on Saturday will have to “send some very clear messages” about the Ukraine conflict while at the same time reassuring US partners that it remains focused on the state of the Indo-Pacific.

“In Southeast Asia in particular, being economically present, and being seen to present viable economic alternatives to China, is really the key to influence.”
– Euan Graham, International Institute of Strategic Studies

At the last dialogue in 2019, talk of the US fleshing out its Indo-Pacific strategy under Donald Trump fell somewhat short of expectations. Three years on, there is a new administration and a new regional strategy – the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity – but some enduring concerns about whether it is living up to its words.

“The most common criticism of the US is that it’s an imbalanced stool where the military leg receives the most attention and the diplomatic and especially the economic leg are kind of underdeveloped,” Graham says.

“I think that there is some truth to that – and in Southeast Asia in particular, being economically present, and being seen to present viable economic alternatives to China, is really the key to influence.”

Any US hopes that Southeast Asia will align itself to an anti-China coalition are unlikely to be fulfilled, with the region “very clearly trying to situate itself in the middle”.

What Austin has to say about Taiwan is likely to be examined closely after US President Joe Biden said last month the country would be willing to use force in the event of a Chinese invasion, only for officials and Biden himself to downplay the significance of those remarks.

Taiwan and others will be looking closely at the response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and what it could mean for conflict closer to home, Capie says, with the Russia-China relationship also likely to be under the microscope.

Perhaps as important as Austin’s speech will be his engagements on the sidelines of Shangri-La, with speculation around a first in-person meeting with Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe (Wei will deliver his own speech to the dialogue the day after Austin’s, focused on China’s own vision for the regional order).

Speed dating at Shangri-La

The difficulty of holding such face-to-face meetings has been among the many downsides of Covid-19, Graham says, with the stilted formality of virtual meetings a poor substitute for the real deal.

“The Shangri-La Dialogue is a bit like a defence ministers’ speed dating event: you can do an awful lot, bilaterally and multilaterally, in a very short space of time.”

While the likelihood of any significant agreements is slim, Capie says a bilateral meeting would be most useful in setting some ‘guardrails’ around the military aspect of their competition.

“[They would want] to make sure that as the two are competing, that they have clear understandings about each other’s priorities and concerns and red lines so that there’s no miscalculations, and just really begin to establish a relationship so that you’ve got those free and open lines of communication should you need them in the event of a crisis.”

Of course, it is not just the two great powers who will set out their view of the world: while many speakers are still to be confirmed, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has already been announced as the keynote speaker for the event’s opening night.

Kishida’s visit, the first by a Japanese leader since 2014, comes as the new prime minister looks to make his mark on the country’s foreign policy.

“I don’t think people really had great expectations that Kishida was going to change the pace of defence and security policy, but he seems to have latched on to it with quite a bit of enthusiasm,” Graham says.

The Pacific is likely to be a topic of debate at the Shangri-La Dialogue in the wake of Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi’s Pacific tour. Photo: Fiji Government

Kishida has already sent a warning about a repeat of the Ukraine invasion in Taiwan, while pledging to significantly increase the country’s defence spending.

“Japan’s place in the regional order is sometimes neglected, because it’s not in the Japanese mentality to bang their drum, but they are present in Southeast Asia in a way that, I think, appearances sometimes deceive on that front.”

The Pacific, already highlighted by Defence Minister Peeni Henare as an area of emphasis during his time in Singapore, is likely to come up throughout the dialogue on the back of Wang Yi’s diplomatic tour of the region, both Capie and Graham say.

“If you’d come to [Shangri-La] five years ago, the Pacific would have seemed like it was more preoccupied by the non-traditional security issues: climate change, transnational crime, and things like that…

“But what’s happened in the last year or so, and even just in the last month, it’s just a reminder of the sharpness of geopolitics as it’s playing out in the Pacific, so it would be surprising if it if it didn’t get mentioned in the in the main hall and some of those big speeches.”

Identifying those areas of tension is easy enough – whether anything can be done at Shangri-La to help ease them is another matter altogether.

* Sam Sachdeva is covering the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore courtesy of a media grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation.

Sam Sachdeva is Newsroom's national affairs editor, covering foreign affairs and trade, housing, and other issues of national significance.

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