KUALA LUMPUR – I’m currently in Southeast Asia for a string of conferences, including another round of annual security forums with the Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR) in Malaysia and the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore. With the 2017 iteration of the Asian security dialogues kicking off this week, it is worth stepping back and taking a closer look at where things stand with respect to the region’s key forums.
Asia’s Security Dialogues
Over the decades, a number of dialogues have surfaced in the Asia-Pacific. The oldest is APR, first held in 1987, which is still regarded today as a main Track Two forum for regional security issues in the Asia-Pacific. Convened by the country’s leading think tank, the Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia, with the help of the ASEAN Institutes for Strategic and International Studies (ASEAN-ISIS) – a group of national think tanks either created or supported by Southeast Asian governments – APR is usually held in Malaysia in late May.
In 2002, the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) was launched in neighboring Singapore by British think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and support from the Singapore government. The SLD – which gets its name from the Shangri-La hotel in which it is held – is effectively the region’s premier Track 1.5 forum for security issues – combining the original focus of a Track One component of ministers occupying speaking slots and official delegations with a growing list of non-official delegates as well.
APR and SLD are the two established annual forums in Southeast Asia that have become regular fixtures for some Asian thinkers. But a number of other newer security forums have also either surfaced or been mulled periodically since then. These include the Jakarta International Defense Dialogue (JIDD), which was first held in Indonesia in March 2011, and the Seoul Defense Dialogue (SDD), a more Northeast Asia-centric forum launched by South Korea in November 2012 and features vice-defense ministers.
But the one that has gained the most attention of late is China’s Xiangshan Forum. The Xiangshan Forum, which was founded back in 2006, initially started as a biannual Track 2 forum but was upgraded to an annual Track 1.5 forum in 2015. At the time, China’s decision to do so was read by some as not just an attempt to boost Beijing’s prestige, but to place more emphasis on creating new institutions as part of an increasingly Sinocentric order (See: “China: New White Paper, Old Asia Conundrum”).
State of Play
Today, Asia’s key security dialogues continue to be closely watched. That is no surprise. At the most basic level, they provide good opportunities to get a window into what governments and experts are thinking as well as check the pulse of an important region.
But that is not all. At times, states can also use them to propose new initiatives or give updates on existing ones, as was the case when China’s Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin delivered an oft-cited speech on Beijing’s vision for improving the regional security architecture at last year’s Xiangshan Forum (See: “Can China Reshape Asia’s Security Architecture?”). Other official meetings can be planned either alongside or around these forums as they mature, as has become the norm in the SLD every year (See: “Singapore, India Hold First Defense Ministers’ Dialogue”).
Though these Asian security dialogues have tended to evolve over time, today several of the more mature forums like APR and SLD are structured as a series of panels and/or speeches, with some introducing a mix of plenary as well as breakout sessions devoted to specific topics and encouraging more delegate participation.
The agenda at these dialogues tend to see a mix of continuity and change from year to year. While certain topics – like relations between major powers or maritime security – will unsurprisingly feature repeatedly, evolving trends in the region also tend to lead to some shifts.
At APR, for instance, last year saw a heavy focus on the South China Sea ahead of the arbitral ruling (See: “No China Compromise on South China Sea After Philippines Case: Top Chinese Expert”). But the emphasis has been much less this year relatively speaking, and the attention has been on other key issues like the challenges faced by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as it commemorates its 50th anniversary as well as the role of the United States in the region under President Donald Trump (See: “The Real Challenge of US-ASEAN Relations Under Trump”).
Yet the proliferation of these forums has also led to comparisons between them and in some cases even perceived competition. Some type of grading is certainty possible, though one needs to ensure that the criteria is comprehensive enough to make this more meaningful, including things like the level and extent of participation; the quality of discussion and debate; and the degree of actual policy impact.
But this competition can also at times be overhyped. Take for instance the idea that the Xiangshan Forum could emerge as a rival to SLD and perhaps even eventually displace it as the region’s preeminent regional security forum. To be sure, despite the fact that Xiangshan is much newer, it has seen a rising number of delegations over the years, and China’s continued focus on upgrading and reshaping it could certainly elevate its status even further.
At the same time, if you talk to those involved in organizing Xiangshan, even they will candidly admit privately that this is still very much aspirational and that it has a long way to go. Upping the number of countries attending over the years is a much easier metric to boost quickly than other ones like debate quality, which often involves years of calibration following feedback from participants and reforms that need to be deliberated and then acted on.
Meanwhile, the SLD is also trying to raise its game even further in several ways. John Chipman, the director-general and chief executive of IISS and the founder of the dialogue, told me in an interview at last year’s SLD. The focus is not only on things like inclusiveness – last year saw the defense ministers from all five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council attend – but also tweaking things to promote even more and better discussion.