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Top security issues to expect at the Shangri-La Dialogue 2017

The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue is Asia's leading annual defence summit attended by ministers and delegates from more than 50 countries. The Asia New Zealand Foundation's Senior Advisor (Research), James To, looks at some of the big security issues likely to be under discussion.

Flag of North Korea

The Shangri-La Dialogue conjures up images of a benign chat in paradise. For the past 16 years, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) has convened this dialogue in Singapore, which has become a key fixture on the regional calendar. Governments, military and think-tanks meet to discuss some of the sharper issues confronting the Asia-Pacific. The Dialogue is a very important opportunity for regional leaders and think-tanks to exchange perspectives on regional strategic issues.

Dealing with North Korea

The top issue has to be North Korea. There is no likelihood Kim Jong Un will give up his missile and nuclear development programme, no matter what carrots or sticks are used to pressure him. Although defence ministers from Asia are expected to issue a joint statement condemning Pyongyang’s provocations at Shangri-La, there is unlikely to be much progress on how to deal with this. United States president Donald Trump has been pressuring Beijing to do more, resulting in agreement to implement more sanctions against Pyongyang. China has called for both Washington and Pyongyang to refrain from making any provocation in an effort to reduce tensions so that talks can proceed.

More concerted efforts might be another path forward – ASEAN has been given the blessing by major powers to play a role in facilitating talks with North Korea. As such, we may see Malaysia (which, until the recent assassination of Kim Jong Nam, had previously allowed visa free travel for North Koreans) now having to get on board with the rest of the world, and seriously reassess its ties and relations with the volatile nation.


Rodrigo Duterte, president of the Philippines

Terror remains high on the agenda following the explosion in Manchester, England. Indonesian President Joko Widodo pushed for ratification of stronger anti-terror legislation after a suicide bombing in Jakarta killed three police officers; while Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte declared a state of martial law in Mindanao, where ISIS-linked militants have laid siege to the city of Marawi. An ISIS foothold in Southeast Asia has confirmed the threat is clear and present, with implications for Australia as well. More than 600 ISIS radicalised fighters are expected to return to Southeast Asia from Iraq and Syria in the coming months. Regional authorities will be discussing both local and regional measures to deal with this problem.

China, China, China

The rise of China is a topic never far from any conversation on global security.

The Chinese leadership is focused on projecting a benign regional setting ahead of the Party Congress later this year. Its Belt and Road Summit earlier this month was consistent with this narrative. Whether it is about the Mekong, military modernisation or territorial disputes, the implications for the region are clear: We will see either a more dominant and influential China (if the US retreats); or increased US-China tensions (if the US maintains its pivot to Asia).

Either way, commentators are presenting scenarios of increased strategic instability, an arms race (or “capability competition”), and more countries facing the “China Choice” – whether or not to side with Beijing when it comes to the crunch. For many nations, it is likely their current hedging strategies will have to continue as they try to balance security with their economic concerns.

The US position

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and US president Donald Trump

There is much talk on the future of the US' "pivot" to Asia. Will the Trump administration maintain its engagement in Asia, and, in particular, to its allies? While his campaign rhetoric may not have shown it, President Trump’s more recent behaviour seems to be respecting the vital shared interests that the US has across the globe, and he is finally making much-needed assurances by announcing boosts in military spending in both the Middle East as well as the Asia-Pacific.

Participants at the Dialogue will be watching closely to see whether US Secretary of Defence James Mattis re-asserts this commitment when he takes the stage in Singapore.

South China Sea

Sino-US relations seemed to be going relatively smoothly following the summit in April. But tensions around the South China Sea heightened last week when the USS Dewey conducted a freedom of navigation operation for the first time in several months, by sailing close to Mischief Reef. This event will surely prompt China to respond with stern words calling for non-interference at Shangri-La. However, Beijing is keen to push its agenda more positively – with China and ASEAN agreeing to the framework on the Code of Conduct, this should go some way to mitigate incidents during maritime operations.

What will be interesting is how strongly claimant states (such as Vietnam and Philippines) press their views in seeking wider support on their situation – and what their asks might be of New Zealand.

All eyes on Singapore

A bird's-eye view of downtown Singapore

As Asia’s leading dialogue on defence and security issues, the eyes of the world will be focused on Singapore this week. The region will be expecting the US to honour its commitment to its values and principles; China will be asserting its position strongly and clearly, as well as reminding any countries of the implications should there be disagreement with that.

Will there be anything close to the intensity of last year’s Dialogue? Unless something major happens over the coming days, it would seem that things are looking like “business as usual”.

But then again, a week in the age of Trump is a very long time indeed.

The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, held at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, begins on 2 June 2017. NZ Defence Minister Mark Mitchell is scheduled to speak at the event. The Asia New Zealand Foundation's executive director, Simon Draper, is attending as an NGO delegate this year. 

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30 May 2017