This year, the 20th edition of the annual dialogue of the biggest Asia-Pacific security forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), was held in Singapore from 2nd to 4th June. The SLD offered a venue for debates on regional security issues as Asia’s premier meeting of leading defense professionals. The 2023 SLD, which gathered participants from all around the Asia-Pacific region, served as a crucial opportunity to promote constructive engagement and collaboration on regional security while fostering trust and understanding between states. High-ranking defense officials, decision-makers, and specialists gathered throughout the Asia-Pacific area and beyond to discuss ideas and consider working together.
SLD agendas for this year included a variety of security-related topics, such as the conflict in Ukraine, the North Korean situation, cyber security, and climate change. Additionally, the Indo-Pacific competition between the United States and China and rising Chinese aggressiveness in the region and in its backyard, the South China Sea, dominated the agendas. The forum proved its commitment to immediate action and debate of solutions by addressing these important issues. Now this short brief attempts to provide a glimpse of major outcomes of the 2023 SLD summit after providing a short description of the forum and the building up scenario of this year’s dialogue.
The Shangri-La Dialogue
Asia-Pacific’s top defence leaders meet at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual conference hosted by the Institute of International Strategic Studies (IISS), to debate issues related to regional security. The Shangri-La hotel in Singapore, where it has been held since 2002, gave the event its name. The Munich Conference on Security Policy served as the foundational reference for the SLD, with key difference of it being a Track One diplomatic engagement platform. Initially, invitations were sent to ASEAN participants only in order to act as a regional security network and later it has broadened its spectrum of participants from all over the Indo-Pacific. Instead of concentrating on particular agreements, the summit aims to promote mutual understanding and confidence among military and defense professionals. Geopolitical tensions, maritime security, counterterrorism, cybersecurity, and new threats are just a few of the security-related topics that are discussed in the summit. The Shangri-La Dialogue fosters trust, understanding, and collaboration by bringing together high-ranking representatives, decision-makers, and specialists from the Asia-Pacific area and beyond. It acts as a vital venue for establishing alliances and promoting positive interaction about regional security and stability.
Leading Up to the 2023 Summit
As the indo-pacific region has gained significant importance in global politics in recent years, with the US’s shifted focus to the region and its China containment policy, the Sino-American narratives, agenda focus and bickering gained the center stage. Various incidents and events heated up the US-China relation that led up to the summit and eventually influenced the discussions and procedures.
Last August, after Nancy Pelosi, the then-Speaker of the House, visited Taiwan, Beijing halted official military-to-military contacts with the US. Since then, tensions between the United States and China have only increased, especially in the wake of news in February that a Chinese surveillance balloon was flying over American land. Two separate military encounters between the US and China also added heat to the tense moments before the summit. Over the South China Sea on May 26, a Chinese J-16 fighter jet is said to have engaged in risky and aggressive intercepts of US reconnaissance aircraft and then, on June 3, a Chinese naval vessel abruptly maneuvered into the path of an American guided-missile destroyer while making a normal transit through the Taiwan Strait. Additionally, when Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen traveled to the US to meet with US House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in April to request support against potential Chinese attack, the military tensions around Taiwan increased. China charges the US for backing Taiwan’s independence-seeking groups, while the US criticizes China for its aggressive intentions and actions that attempt to change the status quo. These incidents damaged the two countries’ relations, and eventually a US-proposed bilateral meeting between the US defense secretary and the Chinese defense minister was rejected by the Chinese side. As a result, there was no official meeting between the two most powerful nations in the region.
Shangri-La Dialogue 2023–The Agendas
The agendas of the Shangri-La Dialogue 2023 encompassed a diverse array of topics, fostering bilateral meetings and sideline dialogue sessions. These discussions aimed to address key security challenges and promote cooperation among participating nations. The summit delved into the security implications of cyber and technological competition, recognizing the evolving landscape of digital threats and their impact on regional stability. Another significant agenda was the challenges of military capability development in the Asia-Pacific region. This topic explored the need for enhancing defense capabilities while ensuring transparency and strategic stability among nations. The nuclear dimensions of regional security in the Asia-Pacific were also extensively examined. The dialogue provided a platform to discuss nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation, and regional dynamics in relation to nuclear weapons. Additionally, the summit focused on the United States’ leadership role in the Indo-Pacific, recognizing its impact on regional security and stability. Discussions revolved around the U.S.’ commitment to upholding a rules-based international order and its engagement in the region. Other important topics included building a stable and balanced Asia-Pacific, resolving regional tensions, understanding Asia’s evolving maritime security, managing Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific security, and enhancing defense cooperation in the Indian Ocean region.
Unlike summits that aim for specific bilateral or multilateral agreements, the SLD focused on discussion and fostering mutual understanding and confidence among military and defense officials. This approach set the stage for an environment of open and honest exchanges, where participants could openly discuss their concerns, perspectives, and potential solutions. Thus, instead of specific agreements the behavior, attitudes, country specific focus and discussed topics gave out the major outcomes. Some of the achievements and disappointments of the summit were
Record participation: An astonishing 571 official delegates, including 34 ministers, from 54 nations attended this year’s SLD. With such broad involvement, the SLD solidified its position as the premier multilateral forum for addressing international security issues in the Indo-Pacific area.
Breakdown of US-China Defense Ministerial Meeting: Considering it was Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu’s inaugural meeting it was anticipated that the very first meeting with his US counterpart would take place in the summit. However, the Chinese side canceled the meeting on the ground that the US authority imposed secondary sanctions on Mr Li in 2018 for alleged involvement in procuring military equipment from Russia.
Providing Platform to Middle and Small Powers to Contribute: The summit’s key accomplishment would be in providing a platform to small nations. For instance, Prabowo Subianto, Indonesia’s defense minister, proposed a peace proposal to end the conflict in Ukraine. The idea included both the creation of a demilitarized zone and the holding of a UN referendum. Although the offer was rejected by the Ukrainian foreign ministry, Prabowo’s proactive attempt not only demonstrated Indonesia’s growing involvement in international affairs but also reflected the hopes of many Asian countries for a peaceful end to the war in Ukraine and their engagement in global security issues
Key Difference in Outlook: There were key differences in terminology to indicate the region in speaches of US and Chinese officials. The terms used in the statements by the US defense chief was “Indo-Pacific” and his Chinese counterpart used “Asia-Pacific” indicating a clear distinction between the US and Chinese views.
Different Focus Agendas: Another key outcome would be the difference in Asian and European countries’ focus of agendas. Countries of the two continents remain ocean apart in terms of agenda focus. While Asian officials sought an early end to the fighting and the restoration of peace in Ukraine since it adversely harmed them, European leaders intended to use the summit to rally support for Kyiv among Asian nations.
In conclusion, the Shangri-La Dialogue 2023 provided a platform for extensive discussions on a wide range of critical security agendas. The dialogue addressed topics such as cyber and technological competition, military capability development in the Asia-Pacific, nuclear dimensions of regional security, US leadership in the Indo-Pacific, resolving regional tensions, Asia’s evolving maritime security, managing Euro-Atlantic and Asia-Pacific security, and defense cooperation in the Indian Ocean region. Through these discussions, the summit fostered cooperation, built trust, and contributed to a deeper understanding of the complex security landscape in the Asia-Pacific region. The insights gained and agreements reached during the dialogue will serve as a foundation for future endeavors, reinforcing the summit’s commitment to addressing regional security challenges and promoting peace and stability in the region.
– Wahid Uzzaman Sifat is a Research Intern at the KRF Center for Bangladesh and Global Affairs (CBGA).
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