The Cable

Coming on The Cable: Live Coverage of the Shangri-la Security Dialogue

Singapore – Security in the South China Sea, tensions in North Korea, and the changing nature of Asian security will top the agenda this weekend at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the largest annual gathering of Asian and Pacific defense officials and experts in the world. Your humble Cable guy is already on the ground as ...

JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images
JASON REED/AFP/Getty Images

Singapore – Security in the South China Sea, tensions in North Korea, and the changing nature of Asian security will top the agenda this weekend at the Shangri-la Security Dialogue, the largest annual gathering of Asian and Pacific defense officials and experts in the world.

Your humble Cable guy is already on the ground as the top delegations from 28 countries, including 16 defense ministers, convene on the island city-state this weekend for the 12th annual iteration of the conference, run by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) out of London. Last year’s event was packed with news, as when then Defense Secretary Robert Gates unveiled a new U.S. plan to increase the U.S. military commitment to Southeast Asia.

Gates met with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie at last year’s event and Liang fought off verbal attacks from several regional powers on China’s aggressive activities in the maritime domain. He even answered several questions posed by The Cable. Although the United States and China tried to portray an image of improving U.S.-China military ties, last year’s event highlighted the deep disparity between the two country’s visions for the region.

This year, the United States is sending a large, high-level delegation led by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and including Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, Pacific Command chief Adm. Samuel Locklear, and Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs Mark Lippert.

There will also be a hefty U.S. congressional delegation here in Singapore, including Senate Armed Services ranking Republican John McCain (R-AZ), Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT), and Rep. Eni Faleomavaega (D-Samoa), the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Panetta, who is also traveling to Vietnam and India on the trip, will focus his speech in Singapore on the U.S. military shift toward Asia. He previewed those remarks in a May 29 speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland.

"America is a maritime nation, and we are returning to our maritime roots," Panetta said. "America’s future prosperity and security are tied to our ability to advance peace and security along the arc extending from the Western Pacific and East Asia into the Indian Ocean and South Asia. That reality is inescapable for our country and for our military, which has already begun broadening and deepening our engagement throughout the Asia-Pacific." 

Panetta will travel to China for the first time as Defense Secretary later this year. For Washington, the conference is a chance to drive home its commitment to Asian security, said John Chipman, director-general and chief executive of IISS. For China, the conference is an opportunity to defend its actions and intentions toward its neighbors.

"This year the U.S. will reaffirm its rebalancing to Asia, what they earlier called the ‘pivot’ to Asia that they are now calling ‘the rebalancing,’" Chipman said. "China has had a challenging year with the region, which is simultaneously attracted and intimidated by Chinese power."

In a change from last year, China won’t be sending an official at the defense-minister level. Sources familiar with the discussions said that due to the sensitive nature of China’s impending leadership transition, the Chinese government is being unusually cautious about its public interactions.

That will shift some of the attention to the other regional powers, such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines, Australia, and Malaysia. For example, Indonesian President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono will give the opening keynote address. Thai defense minister Air Chief Marshal Sukumpol Suwanatat will attend for the first time, as will the defense minister of Myanmar, Lt. Gen. Hla Min. Indian defense minister A K Antony will deliver another one of the keynote speeches.

"We know what the U.S. and China think. It will be interesting to see how the medium powers seek to frame the discussion," Chipman said. "Indonesia sees itself now not just as a leading country in Southeast Asia but as a G-20 power. It wants to play a larger role in defining the security agenda in the region."

As with many of these conferences, much of the real action will take place on the sidelines — in a series of bilateral, small group, and off the record meetings that will occur alongside the official festivities. This year there will be an off-the-record session on tensions in the South China Sea in which Chinese and Filipino officials will participate.

Other special sessions will cover the role of armed forces in international emergencies, the evolution of submarine warfare, cyberwarfare, and the emergence of new military systems such as unmanned vehicles.

The United States, Japan, and South Korea will use the opportunity of the conference to hold a trilateral side meeting, where the North Korea nuclear issue is expected to be discussed. Indonesia, Australia, and India will hold another small multilateral meeting, possibly including Japan.

There will be more than 200 bilateral meetings in Singapore as well, in addition to the dozen or so small multilateral gatherings. That’s the whole idea of bringing these officials to Singapore for three days, Chipman said.

"Almost all the defense ministers refer to it as ‘the indispensable forum’ for defense discussions," he said. "It really allows for a larger variety of discussions that no other forum in Asia — official or unofficial — permits."

We’ll be blogging and tweeting (@joshrogin) the entire time. Watch this space.

 Twitter: @joshrogin
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