The 16th edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue (also known as the Asia Security Summit), is scheduled to be held in Singapore in the month of June. The summit is precariously placed between two major events: The OBOR (One Belt, One Road) summit which was held in China in May, and the SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) summit scheduled just after the Shangri-La Dialogue.
The Dialogue was first convened in 2002, and the 2016 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue was the fifteenth dialogue of the series. It has been a distinct platform for defence ministers from the Asian-Pacific countries and also certain European nations that have a stake in the Asia-Pacific regional security. This platform initiates conversations over strategic interplay and defence planning. It also helps in the articulation of possible future relationships in the domain of defence and promotes synergy among different nations.
The Shangri-La Dialogue and its importance
Time and again, the importance of the Shangri-La Dialogue has been questioned. The major question is what is this dialogue all about? Is it a scholar forum, or a semi- official platform which voices the stance of defence ministers, top ranking military officials and policy mandarins on important issues? The Shangri-La Dialogue has been seen as a critical informal bridge between the official dialogues at summit meetings led by ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations), and the expanded formal dialogues such as the East Asia Summit.
However, in the last few years, it has become a stage for a tug of war between the US and China. Certain issues of contention have been over the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Another issue that has been largely discussed is the changing geopolitical scenario ever since the US has claimed its return to the Asian theatre through the ‘Pivot to Asia policy’. In fact, the annual reference to Chinese assertiveness has forced China to send the biggest delegation to the Shangri-la dialogue. This has been done for image management and for countering any arguments made against China.
An expansive association with countries
During the presidency of Barrack Obama, the ‘Pivot to Asia policy’ was carefully projected in the Shangri-La dialogue and was sufficiently complemented by the Indo-Pacific construct. It also drew India into the larger strategic narrative of East and Southeast Asia. Now with the coming of President Trump, military modernisation across the world and the need for trust building would dictate the agenda for the coming year.
However, more recently, US ships venturing into the safe zone of Chinese islands has shown that the US does intend to retain its supremacy in these waters. So far, India has largely kept a low profile in the Shangri-La dialogue due to its low political weightage. The dialogue has been seen as a good strategic exercise which provides long-term analysis for strategic thinkers and military strategists. During its discourse, the exchange of heated words translating into any major crisis has never been encountered.
The 2016 Shangri-La dialogue saw representation from 30 nations, which included the presence of defence ministers from at least 20 nations. The representation was not only from the Asia-pacific region but also from other parts of the world. Those who attended included the US defence secretary and the defence ministers of many NATO nations including India, Japan, Korea, and many ASEAN nations.
In this context, the previous year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was important for specific reasons. It clearly outlined that changing geographic features for strategic gains might not augur well for the economic prosperity of the Asian region. It also stated how an increase in tension along maritime routes would spike insurance costs and lead to cost disadvantages.
What could this mean for India?
This year, the Shangri-La dialogue would be a chance for India to define its vision for regional peace and security. It would allow India to propose how it intends to play the role of an emerging superpower, which is currently seen as a country that lacks the required commitment to pursue its objectives.
India, which was increasingly seen as a mature and responsible stakeholder, has already raised its stakes in the Asian region in the last few decades. This has been done through both political and economic overtures. These overtures include signing strategic partnership agreements with Korea, Vietnam, Indonesia, Australia, Japan, ASEAN nations and China.
Thus, it has a strong strategic partnership agreement with Russia, China and the US. While the tone and tenor of strategic partnership agreements may be different, India has embarked on enhancing its economic engagement with Korea, Japan, ASEAN, Malaysia, Singapore and with Australia and New Zealand, in the near future.
The Dialogue of 2017: What lies ahead?
This year’s dialogue would see China steadfastly replaying the OBOR and BRI (Belt and Road) initiative card and focussing on how they would benefit other countries. This is because many countries are still speculative with regard to the Chinese promises and their pitfalls. In wake of this, countries like India need a strong response. The position of these countries should be clarified, given the fact that OBOR is a Chinese idea which is hard-sold to the financially and infrastructurally deprived developing nations of the world. India needs to voice its opinion and make its reservations explicit.
India, so far, has willfully avoided the OBOR predicament and it has every right to do so as a sovereign nation. However, being silent on international dialogue forums is not an option. India will have to carry its strategic drum to let other nations hear what it believes in.
Pankaj Jha is an Assistant Professor of Defence and Strategic Studies at Jindal Global University