Five things to watch for at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore
Asia’s annual security conference, the three-day IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, begins on Friday in Singapore – and five key issues will take centre-stage.
1. South China Sea tensions
Tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea have been rising in recent weeks. US Secretary of Defence Jim Mattis on Tuesday said the US would continue to confront what Washington sees as China’s militarisation in the contested waters.
“You’ll notice there is only one country that seems to take active steps to rebuff them or state their resentment [to] them, but it’s international waters and a lot of nations want to see freedom of navigation,” Mattis said. “When they [Chinese] do things that are opaque to the rest of us, then we cannot cooperate in areas that we would otherwise cooperate in.”
On Sunday, two US Navy warships sailed close to several islands in the disputed Paracel group. Beijing condemned the move as a “serious infringement of Chinese sovereignty”. The Philippines also warned that it will go to war with China if Beijing crosses its “red line”.
2. North Korea crisis
As the “will they or won’t they” US-North Korea summit draws closer – potentially June 12, also in Singapore – the focus of the security conference is expected to be on North Korea. Prospects for the summit remain uncertain – US President Donald Trump cancelled the talks on May 24, but changed his mind less than 24 hours later, stating that the meeting was still possible.
Defence officials at the Shangri-La Dialogue are expected to discuss how sincere North Korea is about denuclearisation, and how likely it is that Trump and Kim Jong-un can reach an agreement during their talks.
South Korean defence minister Song Young-moo and his Japanese counterpart Itsunori Onodera are expected to give a keynote speech titled “De-escalating the North Korean crisis”.
3. Indo-Pacific strategy
The US renamed its Pacific Command as the Indo-Pacific Command on Wednesday in a move reflecting the growing importance of India in the region. The timing also coincided with heightened tensions over the South China Sea. That rebranding was noted by Beijing, with defence ministry spokesman Ren Guoqiang saying China was monitoring developments.
Mattis is slated to speak on US leadership and the challenges of Indo-Pacific security at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Washington has repeatedly asserted its commitment to maintaining security ties in the region, which analysts say is aimed at China.
4. How China responds to criticism
China’s delegation to the conference, despite being relatively low-level, was carefully chosen to shape the dialogue as an “academic exchange” instead of a policy debate, according to Yue Gang, a retired PLA colonel and military analyst. The delegation is being led by He Lei, a lieutenant general and vice-president of the People’s Liberation Army’s Academy of Military Science.
“The occasion is more about exchanges on [military] theories, so by sending academic representatives, we can refute the incorrect viewpoints,” Yue said. “At the same time, we don’t want to make the exchange appear too confrontational.”
5. Other regional security issues
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will make the keynote address to open the summit and is expected to highlight India’s role in helping to ensure stability in the region. In recent years, India has ramped up its naval activity in the Indian Ocean as China increases its presence in the area with its “string of pearls” network of military and economic installations.
Other pressing regional issues include Myanmar’s Rohingya crisis, terrorism and counterterrorism, and the implications of military build-ups in the Asia-Pacific region.