Shangri-La Dialogue amid a world in crisis

The war in Ukraine and regional security concerns flowing on from the conflict dominated discussions at this year's inter-governmental security summit the Shangri-La Dialogue. The Singapore summit, which attracted high-level representatives from over 40 countries, was attended by Asia New Zealand Foundation Chair Dame Fran Wilde and the Foundation's director Research and Engagement, Suzannah Jessep. In this article, Suzannah reflects on some of her key takeaways from the summit and the importance of New Zealand's presence.
Suzannah Jessep with Faudi Pitsuwan

Suzannah Jessep with fellow attendee and former Asia New Zealand Foundation Young Business Leaders Initiative (YBLI) participant Faudi Pitsuwan.

In June 2022, I attended the Shangri-La Dialogue - Asia's premier defence summit.  It's a unique meeting where ministers debate the region's most pressing security challenges, engage in important bilateral talks, and come up with fresh approaches together. 

The dialogue is run by a world-leading think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), and getting in the door of Shangri-La Dialogue is no easy task.

Attended by more than 500 participants, Shangri-La Dialogue is aimed at those who have the authority and resources to materially impact the future of global order. It is a dialogue packed with Defence Ministers, chiefs of defence force, chief executives, leading commentators, major defence manufacturers, and other experts. It is a privilege to be in the room, and very sobering too.

Set in a context of the Russia-Ukraine war, ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, the climate crisis, and signing of the veiled security cooperation agreement between China and the Solomon Islands, Shangri-La 2022 painted a picture of a world in crisis.

Ukraine’s President Zelensky joined the dialogue remotely from a secret location in Kyiv and drove home the real-time risks of conflict and military miscalculation.

Dame Fran Wilde in an auditorium listening to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on a large screen

Asia New Zealand Foundation Chair Dame Fran Wilde listens to Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivering a virtual address to the room

Other non-traditional security threats including food security, cyber interference, disinformation, and pandemic control were framed as the “aftershocks” of conflict – shocks that are capable of traveling far and wide, including to New Zealand. 

The post-WWII project of globalisation and integration is clearly eroding. As the tide of nation-building and peaceful coexistence recedes, a fresh wave of autocratic government, conflict, military and defence alliances, and nuclear proliferation is washing over us all. The clear assessment was that we now live in a more dangerous world.

If there was a silver lining it was that Russia’s actions have galvanised countries to coordinate on core security interests: to defend sovereignty, territorial integrity, international law, and freedom of navigation.

In the margins of the dialogue, delegations met to discuss their partnerships and invest in actions that will show they mean to be responsible major powers.

The word ‘partnership’ was repeated numerous times – as a shield and clear signal that likeminded countries intend to stand together and share the burden of responsibility to protect the freedoms and liberal order countries like New Zealand depend on to trade, move freely, live peacefully, share resources and protect our environment.

Indonesia’s Minister of Defence, Prabowo Subianto, reminded delegates that Southeast Asian countries had been at the crossroads of imperialism, colonisation and resource wars since time immemorial.

Southeast Asia was acutely aware of the need for wise and benevolent leadership, but it was also critical to focus on finding commonalities and opportunities for peace, rather than digging-in over differences.

“We must strive for understanding and communication” he noted.

The ‘Asian way’ of respecting and balancing powers in an environment of instability and confrontation has allowed Southeast Asian nations to live peacefully together for generations – there were lessons here for every country represented in the room.

Suzannah: "Having New Zealand at the table means we are forming those critical relations that are, in turn, shaping the future of regional order."

New Zealand’s Minister of Defence, Peeni Henare, presented on a panel looking at the climate crisis and need to green defence forces.

Like the Foundation's delegation, he also participated in a number of side meetings where much of the real business gets conducted.

In these short meetings, critical relationships are formed, and views exchanged. As the old adage goes – never judge a book by its cover. So often it is personal rapport, rather than policy, that will soothe bilateral differences.

Ultimately, that is where the real value is in these big conferences. They are hard to get to, often intimidating, and generally exhausting, but you come away with a set of relationships and common understandings, as well as new activities, that are consequential.

Having New Zealand at the table means we are forming those critical relations that are, in turn, shaping the future of regional order.

In an environment where the loudest and burliest might naturally dominate, New Zealand can ensure its interests and values are heard. And for the Foundation, we help ensure the New Zealand public is brought along too, by sponsoring New Zealand media attendance, sharing our insights with others, and working hard to make sure we have a seat at the table next time around too.