Concerns over rules-based order loom over Shangri-La Dialogue 2018

The international rules, which we have relied on and have assumed are ‘just there’, are under stress, writes Simon Draper. (Photo: Ng Eng Hen/Facebook)

At this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, concerns about the strength of the ‘international rules-based order’ ranked high, writes Simon Draper.

OPINION: The Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is the sort of event that would confirm many New Zealanders’ views about excessive and lavish diplomatic engagements.

The hosting hotel lifts its rates to $600 a night for a basic room; roads are blocked; extra police officers deployed, security (and I mean serious, heavily-armed security) is laid on thick, and you see VIP cars of such cost and luxury it boggles the mind. It must cost millions to host (be assured I stayed down the road and walked to the events).

The point is, however, that this is the way these events are run – and it is how Singapore can attract defence ministers and high-ranking officials from  more than 40 countries, as well as senior businesspeople, military, academics and policymakers. Not to mention some 500 journalists, though none from New Zealand.

People come to the Dialogue because it counts. This is the foremost security and defence dialogue in the Asia-Pacific – and New Zealand directly benefits from the “rules-based order” that such meetings are focused on maintaining. 

The key message out of this year’s Dialogue was that people are worried. The international rules, which we have relied on and have assumed are ‘just there’, are under stress. The questions that arose were: Will they break? If they do, what replaces them? Who would write them? And what could it mean for us all?

The ‘Indo-Pacific’, US-China tensions, North Korea

Narendra Modi

Indian PM Narendra Modi delivering the keynote address at the opening of the Shangri-La Dialogue. (Photo: Ng Eng Hen/Facebook)

The weekend began with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi laying out his vision for an “Indo-Pacific” region. This concept has been bandied around for a while now, and the audience was hoping for some meat on the bones. Where does the Indo-Pacific begin and end? (Modi said it spanned from “the shores of Africa to the Americas”.) Is it a security region, economic region, cultural region – or all three? (It looks like security for the moment, but who knows how it will evolve.) There wasn’t as much flesh on the bones as many might have wanted, but the speech contained the words “free and open”, and that seemed to satisfy most of the audience.

The following morning, United States Secretary of Defense James Mattis gave a very polished speech. Better yet, his Q&A session (a rare thing at such events) was a masterclass in considered, clear thinking. If Mattis was finding his feet last year as the newly-appointed defence secretary, he put many anxieties to rest with his performance at the Shangri-La Dialogue. 

While on the one hand, people thought, “Thank goodness there is a grown-up in the White House”, Mattis was on-message with the Trump administration. He was very clear about US concerns in the South China Sea and China’s actions there. His words were more direct, and the consequences of “China’s behaviour” were more clearly articulated than previously.  

“While North Korea may well be the most pressing security concern, the upcoming Kim-Trump summit did not dominate the discussions, reflecting the completely unpredictable nature of that proposed meeting.”

His comment that America First’ does not mean ‘America Alone’ was welcomed by many. He offered a metaphor as a way to describe some of the recent behaviour by the US: If we are all passengers on a plane, and that the oxygen masks have dropped, the US is putting its mask on first, to enable it to look after others. 

So Mattis calmed many in the room, but it was also clear the tension between the US and China is rising, seemingly inexorably.

While North Korea may well be the most pressing security concern, the upcoming Kim-Trump summit did not dominate the discussions, reflecting the completely unpredictable nature of that proposed meeting. No one knew what would happen. The South Koreans told everyone to “give peace a chance” in a Beatle-esque moment, while the Japanese (and much of the audience) were in the “fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me” tone. All that could be conclusively said was that “we have to wait and see”, and “fingers crossed” – which is not how diplomats like to enter any summit, and certainly not one between two nuclear powers.

Defence ministers also spoke on a range of expected subjects, including the role of women in conflict resolution; advances in artificial intelligence and what this means for warfare, terrorism and how to counter it (a highlight of this discussion was the Qatar Defence Minister saying if his defence budget were to double, he would put the extra money into education and SMEs – to create jobs).

New Zealand’s position

Ron Mark and Dr NG

New Zealand Minister of Defence Ron Mark (left) meeting Singapore Minister of Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen on the sidelines of the 17th Shangri-La Dialogue. (Photo: Mindef Singapore)

New Zealand’s Minister of Defence Ron Mark met many of his counterparts for the first time, and spoke at a special session on managing competition in regional security cooperation. 

In a preview of what might be in New Zealand’s upcoming defence policy statement, he pushed the role of defence forces in helping address the consequences of climate change, and reminded those attending that the New Zealand military’s domain stretched from Antarctica to the equator. With the fourth-largest EEZ (exclusive economic zone) in the world, rules mattered for New Zealand.  

He was asked about New Zealand's preference for the phrase “Asia-Pacific” (rather than Indo-Pacific) and responded that New Zealand “may need to adjust our terminology somewhat”.

As an island-nation, a natural tendency is for New Zealanders is to look inwards. The latest Asia New Zealand Foundation Perceptions of Asia and Asian Peoples survey attests to the fact that New Zealanders have a low knowledge base about the region. 

New Zealand can’t be at every event in the region, but this is one party we need to be at (and it would be good to see New Zealand media attend). The “rules-based order” under discussion is one that allows New Zealand to engage with the world and  ideally prosper in a stable region. 

Simon Draper is executive director of the Asia New Zealand Foundation. Views expressed are personal to the author.

– Asia Media Centre