Communication and coordination were major themes at the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June 2023. More than 600 delegates from 49 nations attended the security forum, which draws defense officials, senior military officers, diplomats and analysts from around the world. Opening the summit, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese described dialogue as a crucial guardrail among nations and warned of dangers from “the silence of the diplomatic deep freeze.”
Chinese defense minister Gen. Li Shangfu’s refusal to meet with United States Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the annual forum raised tensions. Austin expressed concern over the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) unwillingness to engage, calling for better crisis management mechanisms between the two militaries. “The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict,” he said. Austin also told the audience that U.S. allies and partners in the region envision a Free and Open Indo-Pacific anchored in respect for sovereignty, adherence to international law, transparency and openness, human rights, and peaceful dialogue instead of coercion.
Despite refusing to meet Austin, Li, in his first international engagement as defense chief, told the audience that Beijing values dialogue over confrontation. He accused other nations of taking “a selective approach to rules and international laws.”
The message undoubtedly rang hollow for some, said Veerle Nouwens, a Shangri-La senior fellow for Indo-Pacific Defense and Strategy with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), which hosts the forum. She pointed to “various assertive Chinese behavior against countries in this region, particularly militarily at sea,” according to IISS.
That was evident from the questions put to Li. “While China is talking about dialogue, China’s actions show confrontation,” Philippine Coast Guard Commodore Jay Tarriela said, according to IISS. “Why is there a big difference between China’s words and its actions?”
Li did not respond.
Like Austin, defense officials from Canada, the Philippines and the United Kingdom emphasized the value of collaboration among countries inside and outside the region for maintaining peace and stability. They also stressed the importance of international law. “In upholding the rule of law, as a small nation relative to a big and powerful neighbor with a grand design on its territory, the Philippines has always believed that international law is the greatest equalizer among states,” said Carlito Galvez Jr., then officer in charge of the Philippines Department of National Defense.
Defense ministers from Australia, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and the U.K. also highlighted their nations’ 52-year-old Five Power Defence Arrangements (FDPA) pact during a briefing on the sidelines of the forum. Longstanding relationships among smaller nations “keep things in balance,” New Zealand Defence Minister Andrew Little said, according to Reuters news agency. He called the FDPA an important part of ensuring collective defense in the region.
Austin, Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada and South Korean National Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup discussed plans to exchange real-time data to detect and assess North Korea’s illegal missile launches. They also pledged to enhance shared security exercises, including anti-submarine and missile defense drills focused on maritime interdiction, anti-piracy, and deterring Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile threats, according to a joint statement.
Hamada and Lee also agreed on the need for continued bilateral security cooperation to curb the North’s threats and promote regional stability, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry.
The defense chiefs of Australia, Japan and the U.S., meanwhile, expressed concern about security tensions in the East and South China seas, and reaffirmed their opposition to the PRC’s militarization of disputed maritime features, its dangerous use of coast guard vessels and maritime militia, and its efforts to disrupt states’ offshore resource activities. In a statement, the nations also condemned Russian aggression in Ukraine.
For the first time since 2018, the Shangri-La Dialogue featured a session on defense cooperation in the Indian Ocean region, with discussion among leaders from France, India, Oman, Sri Lanka and the U.S. Pointing to issues such as piracy, illegal fishing, human trafficking, drug and weapons smuggling, natural disasters and climate change, India’s deputy national security advisor, Vikram Misri, said regional cooperation must be underpinned by international norms and law. He cited the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the necessity of refraining from unilateral measures to change the status quo. “Our Indian Ocean approach is therefore rooted in advancing cooperation in the region by using bilateral, plurilateral and regional tools and mechanisms, and deploying our capabilities for the benefit of all,” he said.
On the forum’s final day, Singaporean Defence Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen returned to the need for formal and informal communication channels among nations. “The salient point is that such channels of communication must be built over time,” he said. “It will be too late to start or activate them only in moments of crisis.”