Asian gazing (part I): Shangri-La and KL Roundtable
31 May 2013|
Shangri-La. Still from 'The Lost Horizon' (1937)

Singapore and Kuala Lumpur are about to enjoy their annual week of speechifying and Asian strategic star-gazing, driven by copious amounts of coffee and conversation. Perhaps only in Southeast Asia could two ‘unofficial’ back-to-back conferences be so firmly embedded into the diaries and habits of Asia’s officials and officers. The Shangri-La security summit in Singapore and the KL Asia Pacific Roundtable express some Asian habits of mind as well as diplomatic and security aspirations.

Starting tonight and running over the weekend, the 12th annual Shangri-La dialogue (named after the host hotel, not the fictional faraway la-la land) is run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. To pursue the ‘perhaps only in Southeast Asia’ theme, this is the Defence Ministers’ summit run by a London think-tank in partnership with Singapore. Or this is the summit that’s also designated as a dialogue.

Shangri-La has the trappings of a summit, not least the rings of security around the venue (there’s always a certain style in being guarded by Singapore’s Praetorian Guard, the Ghurkas). And this year, for the first time, the event had a lead-up Sherpa’s conference. Because it’s also just a dialogue, Shangri-La doesn’t need a communiqué from ministers at the end. They meet, they orate, they talk and even negotiate, but they don’t have to formally agree on anything.

The sometimes ambiguous flavours of ASEAN can mix with the European cuisine of IISS. No need for a statement of achievement or deliverables. Instead, Shangri-La offers a series of open sessions with Defence Ministers giving speeches and taking questions; some follow-on closed sessions on the subject du jour for Asian star gazers; and running in parallel, dozens of sideline bilaterals between Ministers.

The traffic flows can get complicated as various delegations manoeuvre for bi-lat rendezvous. Indeed, when it’s the US Secretary of Defense and the attendant US military brass doing that moving, it looks more like a flood than a flow. Doing it all in one big hotel over a weekend means a lot of bases can get touched in a short time and there doesn’t need to be an official score.

Japan, the United States and South Korea will hold their first trilateral defence minister talks in three years on the Shangri-La sidelines. The last such trilateral happened at this event back in 2010. One open question for Asian strategic astronomers is whether Japan and South Korea can actually agree to do a bilateral here as well. Has Shinzo Abe’s magic touch reached Seoul? You start to see why no formal communiqué is a good idea: it’s hard to agree on a statement when sometimes the threshold issue is whether you can agree to meet at all. Part of the sport of Shangri-La is to see who actually takes the bi-lat opportunity.

The gaps and no-go zones give the context for the legitimate claim by IISS Director-General, Dr John Chipman, that Shangri-La is ‘now recognised as an indispensable element of the Asia-Pacific’s regional security architecture.’ It’s so indispensable, in fact, that the ASEAN Defence Ministers have started to construct their own version of this architecture, based on the more restricted membership of countries that attend the East Asia Summit.

In October, Brunei will host the second ASEAN Defence Ministers Meeting with the Plus countries (the US, China, Japan, South Korea, India, Russia, Australia and New Zealand). The ADMM-Plus creation proves yet again that ASEAN might work cautiously on the architecture, but in the naming and acronym game its creativity is boundless.

In the division of the ASEAN spoils, Shangri-La works to the defence side while the KL Roundtable gets the diplomats and reaches towards the Foreign Ministers who meet in the ASEAN Regional Forum. The Roundtable is a gathering for the key players in CSCAP, the Council for Security Cooperation in the Asia Pacific. (The CSCAP Regional Security Outlook for 2013 can be downloaded here.) This is the 27th annual Asia-Pacific Roundtable. It is thus one of the oldest working examples of the ASEAN way running on the second track. Many of the players in Singapore move on to KL to repeat the experience in the more informal atmosphere you get when Defence Ministers are not zooming around the hotel to get to bi-lats. Still, the opening on Monday night will be hosted by the Malaysian Prime Minister, and the Commander of the US Pacific Command is scheduled to speak on the balance of forces in Asia. PMs and Admirals always help give a bespoke air to such unofficial gatherings.

If Shangri-La is the conference that can do the ‘said saids’, then the Roundtable is the chance to reach towards the ‘unsaid saids’. The riff about ‘the said saids…the unsaid saids… and the unsaid unsaids’ is from Adam Sternbergh’s reworking of Don Rumsfeld’s ‘the known knowns … the unknown knowns … and the unknown unknowns.’ The unknowns and the unsaids bedevil Asia. That’s why these annual moments of Singapore and KL strategic star-gazing look well-established in the firmament. Not least because around here the major planets seldom align.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image still from ‘The Lost Horizon’ (1937).