Ukraine, Taiwan and major-powers accountability dominate Singapore security summit

Foundation CEO Suzannah Jessep reflects on some of the big issues discussed at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. Described as Asia's premiere defence summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue is a chance for countries to articulate their positions on security topics at the forefront of world affairs. With a world order that’s "increasingly uneasy for smaller countries" Suzannah outlines what's at stake for smaller players in the region, including New Zealand.

For the past several years, the Asia New Zealand Foundation has attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, facilitated by its Honorary Adviser and Singapore Defence Minister, Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen.

With over 55 countries represented, 581 delegates and 350 media, the dialogue is one of the largest and most senior defence and security Track 1.5 gatherings in Asia.

As host, Singapore – and Minister Ng in particular – plays a leading role throughout the dialogue, alongside the organiser, the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS).

Made up predominantly by defence ministers and their officials, with a small (and sadly, ever-decreasing) cohort of non-governmental experts in the room, the dialogue's primary value is in the bilateral meetings that take place in rooms above the main conference area.

It is in these meetings that the world’s senior-most defence representatives meet face-to-face to test areas of alignment and work through differences.

Singapore Defence Minister and Foundation Honorary Adviser Dr Ng addressing the dialogue

The dialogue was facilitated by Singapore Defence Minister and Asia New Zealand Foundation Honorary Adviser, Dr Ng Eng Hen

Downstairs, on stage, Ministers rehearse their country's position on regional order, international law, sovereignty and territorial integrity, and make a display of their partnerships and investments in defence. They also field questions from the floor, where delegates are able to put forward tough questions and Ministers by and large give pretty frank responses.

This year’s dialogue was notable for the presence of Ukraine's President, Volodymyr Zelensky, who offered a sobering insight into what happens when diplomacy fails, the rules are broken and arms are drawn.

Compared to his first appearance at the Dialogue in 2022 (online), his remarks this year revealed a leader hardened by conflict and clear-eyed about the need to have a rules-based order that functions for small and middle-sized states, not one that is selectively adhered to or ignored by major powers.

He was unapologetic about the collective investment needed to win the war. A loss would send a signal that major powers can re-write the rules and take what they want. “Time is running out.”

China came under considerable pressure at the dialogue for its actions in the South China Sea.

China claims parts of the Exclusive Economic Zones of a number of countries in the region, including the Philippines, where the two countries' coastguards are undertaking manoeuvres very close to each other and where China is using water cannons to ward off Philippines vessels.

Southeast Asian leaders and defence ministers were unequivocal in their condemnation of China's tactics, noting that many did not have the military might to stand up to China and could not exist in a “might is right" world. Others highlighted their concerns with cyber interference, grey zone tactics, bullying and resource extraction in their territories.

China defended its actions, claiming the South China Sea as a part of its territory and that countries of the region must back away and respect China's core interests and red lines.

Numerous countries expressed concern about the pressure China is putting on Taiwan through military, cyber, political and economic means, as it progresses its unification agenda. China argues Taiwan is a province of China and that it will be formally unified – forcefully if necessary – no matter what.

President Zelensky was critical of China’s diplomatic support for Russia and its ongoing export of dual-use goods used by the Russian military against Ukraine. China denies that it is exporting anything in support of Russia's invasion.  

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the audience

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressing the audience

From New Zealand, Defence Minister Judith Collins presented on a panel titled ‘Connecting Indian Ocean and Pacific Security’, alongside her counterparts from Thailand and Canada.

She also participated in a large number of bilateral and multilateral side meetings, including with members of the Five Power Defence Arrangement.  

On the Track II (non-governmental experts) side, I was the only delegate from New Zealand, and manager of the Foundation's Asia Media Centre, Graeme Acton, was the only New Zealand media present.

Other leading experts from New Zealand wanted to attend, but access has become increasingly restricted. IISS puts this down to the war in Ukraine and pressure from European delegations to attend the dialogue and push for a collective response to end the conflict.

For Pacific Island countries and representatives from other counties without sizable militaries, the dialogue is a window into the machinery of regional order.

With the defence industry in the room, there is a direct correlation between what is discussed and the sale of military equipment and services. Everyone is looking for clues as to what is going to come next, and who is going to lead what.

Minister Collins helped to shine a light on the South Pacific islands, noting that many are in fact “large ocean states", as often described by the Pacific Islands Forum, and that many of these countries – including New Zealand – are playing their part in support of regional order.

New Zealand Minister of Defence Judith Collins addressing the dialogue from a podium

New Zealand Defence Minister Judith Collins Minister Collins shone a light on the South Pacific islands, noting that many are in fact “large ocean states",

While they are not at the forefront of regional tensions right now, management of their resources and responding to climate change will take considerable coordinated effort.

US Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, said he had had a 75 minute bilateral with his Chinese counterpart.

In his remarks he noted that the US is the “most capable fighting force on earth" and that partnerships and alliances were the US's greatest strategic advantage.

The US was not looking for a contentious relationship with China, and a fight with China is neither imminent nor unavoidable, but by the same token, there was a “new convergence” between countries across the Indo-Pacific on all matters of security and order.

Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jnr said Southeast Asian countries will not bow down to the pressure being exerted by China. They would actively defend their territories.

In response to a question from the floor, he said a loss of life in the Philippines EEZ as a result of Chinese water cannoning or other acts of aggression would “cross the Rubicon” and – ratcheting up of rhetoric – would be considered an act of war.     

China's new head of defence, Admiral Dong Jun, said China will not play any part in a hot or cold war, but noted that countries must accept whatever red lines, bottom lines and core interests China articulates.

Admiral Jun spoke at length about Taiwan as an inalienable province of China and that anyone who stands in the way – including the democratically elected Taiwan Government  – will be “crushed to pieces." (At that stage, an expert from Taipei walked out of the room).

He went on to say the region was reaching a “cross-roads." Alliances and “bloc mentality can only lead to conflict.”

On the possible use of nuclear weapons, Jun was more reassuring, saying “Nuclear war can never be won and must not be fought.”

In a parallel universe to the Philippines, he noted, “China’s military never acts from its position of strength.”

That said, “China's core interests are sacred and inviable” and China will not budge. There is “a limit to [the] restraint” China will show.   

Other non-traditional security threats including climate change, food security, cyber and technology, space, information and disinformation, transnational crime, terrorism, and energy security, percolated in the background to US-China competition and the war in Ukraine.

The situation in the Middle East, and the US's role arming Israel, received less attention than what the general public might expect at a conference such as Shangri-La.

While countries condemned Hamas, it appeared many were reluctant to specifically articulate their concerns about the US when it is playing such a critical role supporting Ukraine and providing a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific.

Malaysia and Indonesia made it clear they saw Gaza as a horrific humanitarian crisis and questioned the proportionality of Israel's response. They welcomed the proposed cease-fire announced by Biden that weekend, but called for a full and thorough investigation, noting that all major powers must be held to account. “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Japan and Australia took a carefully measured approach in their remarks about China’s actions, noting the areas where China is working constructively with others to respond to global challenges.

Australia's Minister of Defence, Richard Marles, extended several olive branches to China, noting the importance of engagement and welcoming opportunities to collaborate.

He commended China as an important trading nation, and said differences could be managed through diplomacy.

There is “no innate hostility to China", equally, Australia – like Japan, as argued by Japan's Minister of Defence, Minoru Kihara – will be working with partners to uphold international law, territorial integrity and freedom of navigation.

Perhaps expecting a harder and more critical line from Australia, or perhaps because they were really speaking to their own domestic audience, Chinese defence officials read out a sternly worded pre-prepared statement from the floor, almost sarcastic in tone and very much out of sync with what they had received from Marles.    

Two men on stage at the Shangri-La Dialogue with a projection of another man at a podium behind them

In summing up the dialogue, Minister Ng reiterated the importance of ministers and delegates coming together for discussion despite tensions. Shangri-La provides a forum for countries to air their concerns about the most pressing defence and security matters facing regional order, and – it is hoped – to find ways to resolve them or at least coexist.

The Dialogue was “less idealistic" now, with Ukraine injecting a realism about the issues governments were seeking to address and conflicts they must avoid. He called on countries to continue to invest in diplomacy.

From a Foundation perspective, this year's dialogue stood out as one of the more challenging, despite moments of reassurance from major powers and some smooth diplomacy in places.

The challenge comes from the emerging dissonance between words and actions, and the unpredictability of such an order.

China is the largest and arguably most valued trading partner for many countries and yet its actions make it one of the most destabilizing.

The US is arguably the most valued security partner, and yet its actions often undermine the very rules it purports to protect.

Major powers talk about the importance of partnerships and yet often act unilaterally in their own interests.

The developed world talks about helping the developing and small, and yet the Global South continues to see actions that undermine their security or silences them.

In short, it is a world order that’s increasingly uneasy for smaller countries, but who ultimately must try to play along. The alternative, of isolation or abandonment, is worse.