Opinion & Analysis

Shangri-La Dialogue shines light on international tensions

Journalist Thomas Manch sheds light on the stark disparity between the lofty appellation of the Shangri-La Dialogue and the complex reality witnessed at the international defence summit. Having personally attended the Singapore-based summit, Thomas shares his observations, looking at New Zealand's active participation and the palpable strains in the China-United States relationship. Thomas was assisted to attend the summit by an Asia New Zealand Foundation Media Travel Grant.
Andrew Little sitting a a table addressing the room

New Zealand Minister of Defence Andrew Little was a lone voice advocating for nuclear disarmament

It’s a promising name for a summit that had become dominated by the prospect of great power conflict. Shangri-La was the Tibetan utopia described in 1933 novel Lost Horizon, a name taken by a hotel in Singapore, and the defence summit the hotel now hosts.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, held over three days at the beginning of June, attracts experts, military leaders and defence ministers from across the world, putting them all into a room to discuss security issues in Asia-Pacific.

The host of the summit, the London-based thinktank International Institute for Strategic Studies, has set up the event in ways similar to multilateral summits such as APEC: there are side-rooms where mini-lateral and bilateral meetings take place, informal catch ups occur in various lobbies, and a media room for reporters track the speeches and file stories.

The difference is that there’s no consensus to be reached, no need for an outcome statement. Experts and military officials throw pointed questions to the speakers on stage, at times challenging the rhetoric from their adversaries. The diplomacy feels less varnished, more direct.

This was of course no more apparent than with the headline acts, United States defence secretary Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who both took swipes at the other and expounded on why they were the authority guaranteeing regional security.

But countries that aren’t of superpower stature were afforded time on stage to set out their views on how to ensure a peaceful future for an increasingly contested region.

A man in Chinese military uniform sitting at a table addressing a room

Thomas Manch: "For a reporter, attending such an event places you right in front of one of the largest stories in the world, the great power contest between the US and China."

I was there to listen, ask some questions, and report back for Stuff and the readers of its various mastheads, thanks to a grant from the Asia New Zealand Foundation. For a reporter, attending such an event places you right in front of one of the largest stories in the world, the great power contest between the US and China. There’s a lot more to it, of course. 

Some of the more interesting contributions to the summit came from the smaller players, particularly the Southeast Asian countries that have for generations been managing the interests of great powers, and have such recent memory of conflict.

There are similarities between the positioning of these countries and New Zealand. Many have a heavy trade reliance on China and are seeking to diversify this. Some are connected to the Western powers, like New Zealand, through a history of colonisation – though they aren’t as explicitly tied as New Zealand through the Anglo-alliance that is the Five Eyes intelligence sharing arrangement.

There is no “choosing a side” for these countries, and they are up front about how disastrous it would be to have to align solely with one superpower.

Cambodian Minister for National Defence General Tea Banh told the audience that tension between major powers had “hindered the harmonisation and prosperity of other nations”.

“It is obvious that competing parties will not gain any substantial benefit as it is inevitable that they remain dependent on one another for the long term … we do not want to see either China or the US entering decline. The decline of one or both would bring about many risks for the region and the world.”

Singapore Minister of Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen walking through a crowded lobby

The event was attended by Singapore's Minister of Defence and Asia New Zealand Foundation Honorary Adviser Dr Ng Eng Hen

Indonesia Defence Minister Prabowo Subianto, who made a scene by proposing a Ukraine-Russia peace process that would have pleased the Kremlin, was as optimistic about the fate of the region.

“I am convinced that the leaders of both China and the United States, and the West, will resolve these conflicts through compromise, cooperation, and with humanism, resulting in a peaceful resolution of their differences. I am confident that through leadership and wisdom, great statesmanship will prevail amongst the leaders of these great powers.”

There will be no choosing sides for New Zealand, either. Throughout my reporting on the conference, I was trying to answer the question: where is our country placed in all this?

The summit was a good reminder of New Zealand’s relevance. It was noticed by the New Zealand delegation that, when the US Defence Secretary, Austin, was listing his country’s important friends and partners across the Asia-Pacific, New Zealand went unmentioned.

The omission aside, New Zealand certainly has a place in these discussions. Alongside the summit, Defence Minister Andrew Little was attending ministerial lunches and dinners, holding numerous bilateral meetings, and signed a military agreement with Japan.

Defence Minister Andrew Little sitting at a desk addressing the room

Manch: "Alongside the summit, Defence Minister Andrew Little was attending ministerial lunches and dinners, holding numerous bilateral meetings, and signed a military agreement with Japan."

 Little also participated in a discussion on nuclear security in the region. Such discussion of nuclear politics – involving a NATO official, a Pakistani general, and a South Korean representative – was fairly bleak. Little was effectively alone in advocating for a nuclear-free world, all others had reasons and caveats to their comments.

The host of the event, IISS nuclear expert William Alberque​, told me he was impressed by the pragmatism of Little’s stance – pushing for a nuclear weapons ban, but acknowledging countries would make their own decisions for reasons including deterring nuclear attacks.

Ultimately, the balance of the two – lofty rhetoric with a heavy dose of realism – was reflected across the event. The hoped for Shangri-La appears a way off yet.

Read some of the articles Thomas wrote during and afternthe Shangri_la Dialogue

This article was first published on the Asia New Zealand Foundation website.

The Foundation's media programme helps New Zealand journalists cover stories that shed light on Asia and on New Zealand’s ties to the region. We support journalists to build their knowledge of Asia by providing media travel grants, internships in Asian newsrooms and fellowships for senior journalists.

Our Media Travel Grants programme offers New Zealand journalists the chance to travel independently to Asia to research and prepare stories – to help demystify Asia for New Zealand audiences