Of peace, war, and think tanks

The outcome of the Shangri-La Dialogue raises questions about the role of think tanks in diplomacy

Could a think tank start a war? Is diplomacy in full public view really conducive to peace? The outcome of the Shangri-La Dialogue, the Asia security summit hosted in Singapore from 30 May-1 June by the London-based Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS), raises both questions. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, United States Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and lower-ranking representatives from China all traded in public the harshest judgements made by the major powers of the Asia-Pacific in a quarter of a century.

At the event, a mesmerised audience of 450 – including 20 defence ministers – listened to broadsides that were striking not only in their bite but also because they were so generic as to seem to outline a potential major conflict in the making. Attendees also watched to see whether other officials, especially from Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries, would speak in support of what appeared to some to be a call for a coalition, or whether – and how much – they would express, either in public or in private, their reservations about the move.

By any measure, a meeting that was cleverly named the Shangri-La Dialogue – a name straight out of the never-never heights of our imagination – has become the Valhalla of all think tanks. It offers a unique combination of public debate and private meetings for the defence actors of the Asia-Pacific, as well as for involved parties from Europe. To get an idea of the ambition behind this forum, think NATO summit and Munich Security Conference rolled into one. The main event is even preceded by its own “sherpa meetings” between officials, just like a G-8 summit.

The Singapore government has underwritten much of the dialogue. It believes that the event plays an important role as a neutral space for intermediation, and not only as the place to go for defence experts. Incredibly, the region’s defence chiefs simply did not meet before the event’s foundation: the Shangri-La Dialogue has jolted ASEAN into creating its official defence ministers meeting, involving major partners from outside the region.

But the Shangri-La Dialogue is about to become a victim of its own success. A general assembly of states can only work if it follows agreed rules, especially at times of conflict. The Shangri-La Dialogue, since 2002, has given the US the top place at the head of the meeting – the Secretary of Defense or his representative speaks first in the open meeting. That arrangement may reflect the past security architecture of the Asia-Pacific, but it is not based on a formal agreement. China has always grumbled about the existing format, and it is claiming the right to equal status with the US as one of the two “major powers” in the Pacific. Its capacity to attain this status at the dialogue is also hindered by the fact that it does not have an individual official on the same level as other ministers of defence. In China, the civilian Ministry of National Defence is just a conduit between other bodies, but the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) chief-of-staff cannot appear at the meeting as the defence chief since he has to defer to the Chinese Communist Party leadership.

The problem was aggravated this year by the choice of Shinzo Abe as the keynote speaker for the opening dinner that precedes the dialogue. Abe is China’s current nemesis, and China studiously denies Japan’s status as a major power. In fact, in May, Xi Jinping himself propped up a an obscure confidence-building organisation meeting in Shanghai, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia – at which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon were also in attendance. 

The writing is on the wall. China has the capacity to say no. It can turn down anything of which it disapproves. It prides itself on setting its own agenda and following its own timeline, and it exercises the right to remain silent. PLA General Wang Guanzhong’s retort to his counterparts began with the remark that what they were pushing were “words, not deeds”. And indeed, China’s version of the “speak softly, carry a big stick” strategy is to create facts on the ground, all over the East and South China Sea.  

Worse was to come. Strong words – along with the public humiliation suffered by China because of the ineffectual response of its PLA representatives – have also induced China to engage in public taunts. One Chinese general has raised public doubts on the US’s ability to deliver on its commitments, even talking about its “erectile dysfunction”.  Conversely, Prime Minister Abe’s invocation of international law – repeated seven times – may have been a high point for Japan’s public diplomacy. But in a region in which very few nations are prepared to solve any territorial issue through legal arbitration, how effective can that call be?

The tension was raised still higher by the fact that all this was public and relayed by the media. The principals risk becoming prisoners of their own words, particularly the ones directed at their domestic audiences and constituencies. Candid talk is needed at times, but the main goal must remain the effort to engage China and to persuade its leaders to change direction before it is too late. For this goal to be successful, there are two prerequisites: China must be given equal status at least on the occasions when it is put on the stand, and what is asked of China must be required of others as well.

After reaching a pinnacle by becoming a site of expression for rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific, the Shangri-La Dialogue could easily flounder next year if China decides to abandon it. Its promoters need to find a new formula that recognises China’s central role in the security of the Asia-Pacific region, as well as to challenge other Asian stakeholders to promote settlements or compromises among themselves before they push the same requests on China.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Director, Asia and China Programme
Senior Policy Fellow

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