The Shangri-La Dialogue

The annual Singapore-based Asia-Pacific security summit, traditionally a convivial affair, is becoming more candid and sharp elbowed—and that’s a good thing.

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idea light bulbThe Shangri-La Dialogue, a Singapore-based Asian security summit, is typically a cordial affair in which disagreements tend to be politely couched. However, during the 2014 summit held May 30 through June 1, the delegates were not shy about speaking their minds. While conversations were tense and many nations butted heads, points of disagreement were well illuminated, as was the need to begin bridging these differences to mitigate the risk of conflict. Asian leaders left Singapore with a heightened degree of mutual understanding and a new sense of urgency. When many of these same Asian-Pacific leaders arrived in Myanmar this past Sunday for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Regional Forum, or ARF, the hope among policy analysts was that they would pick up from where they left off at Shangri-La. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.

The Diplomat magazine described the ARF as “one of the most cordial … summits in East Asia this year.” All countries backed down from directly challenging China for its recent conflicts in the South China Sea, and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, or ASEAN, were particularly guarded in their comments to avoid antagonizing China. While the joint communiqué from the ASEAN ministers said that they “remained seriously concerned over recent developments which had increased tensions in the South China Sea,” China remained unnamed. In fact, the word “seriously” was only added to the final draft at the request of Vietnam. In addition, progress on maritime security was entirely dictated by China. American and Philippine proposals for a moratorium on destabilizing actions in the South China Sea were entirely dismissed, and only China’s proposal for an “early conclusion to the code of conduct” for the South China Sea garnered support. Political analysts have downplayed this progress, anticipating that a Code of Conduct will not be agreed upon—much less implemented and followed—in the short or medium term. If ASEAN wants to accelerate progress on security cooperation, then they may need to revert to the Shangri-La Dialogue template and publically highlight that their security concerns are indeed at an “all time high.” Asia-Pacific nations should reflect on the Shangri-La Dialogue as a guide for how to proceed more candidly in the future.

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