Shangri La Dialogue: ‘Anodyne’ Antony belied expectations (Comment)June 8th, 2012 - 12:19 pm ICT by IANS
“Shangri La” is the remote Himalayan monastery in James Hilton’s 1933 novel where the survivors of a plane crash receive, from the presiding Lama, a unique philosophy of moderation and pacifism. Even though the “Shangri La Dialogue” (SLD) has a less exotic provenance (it is named after the Singapore hotel which provides the venue) the aims of this annual conference, organized by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), are no less lofty.
The SLD has become a facilitator and catalyst for the development of defence and security initiatives in the Asia-Pacific and an important Track 1 1/2 rendezvous for national security functionaries.
Inaugurated by the Indonesian President, Dr. Yudhoyono, in the presence of the Singaporean PM, the 11th SLD, held on June 1 and 2, 2012, saw, amongst others, the US Secretary Defence, as well as the Defence Ministers of Australia, France, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Myanmar speak during plenary sessions. The orations during the course of this event provide an opportunity for the speakers to clearly articulate national security perspectives before an influential international audience which takes careful note and often responds during a traditionally freewheeling Q&A; session. Structured break-out sessions are used to bring focus on critical areas. A scan of important speeches shows that, like every other year, the 11th SLD, too, provided many valuable insights which Indian policy-makers need to take note of.
President Yudhoyono’s keynote address struck an unusually (for that country) positive and upbeat note, speaking of Indonesia’s growing economic confidence and military influence. He defined a strategic culture of “inclusive regionalism” and offered comfort to countries passing through the Arab Spring by candidly quoting Indonesia’s own example wherein things had “got worse before they got better”.
He urged the ASEAN-China Working Group to speedily formulate the Code of Conduct for South China Sea. In his call for the Indian Ocean to be kept free of new rivalry, India found no mention. Offering assurances of transparency in the context of Indonesia’s ongoing military modernization, he lent strong support for the principle of “partnership diplomacy”.
SLD is, customarily, the setting where the US offers to its often insecure, Asia-Pacific partners an annual reassurance of continuing regional commitment. Defence Secretary Leon Panetta did more than that as he promised a “deeper and more enduring US partnership role”, designed to advance security and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific through “rebalancing.”
Speaking of a new defence strategy, he claimed that a smaller and leaner US military of the future would be agile, flexible and quickly deployable, ensuring worldwide presence through rotational deployments and creation of new partnerships. The US Navy’s 60-40 “re-posturing” between the Pacific and the Atlantic would manifest itself in the allocation of six aircraft carriers, a majority of cruisers, destroyers, littoral combat ships, and submarines to this region.
In the context of India, he marked it out as a country likely to play a “decisive role in shaping the security and prosperity of the 21st century world” and reaffirmed US interest in building a strong security relationship with it.
In the other speech of note, delivered by Australian Defence Minister Stephen Smith, he pointed to the rise of China as a “defining element of Asia’s growing influence”, but observed that it should not be allowed to overshadow the rise of India. He pointed out that Australia’s joining the Indian Ocean Naval Symposium (IONS) in 2008 constituted recognition of the growing strategic importance, not just of the Indian Ocean, but also of India.
Smith drew attention to potential of the Indian Ocean Rim Association for Regional Cooperation (IOR-ARC), to deal with regional challenges, and emphasised his belief that India, Australia and Indonesia could jointly provide leadership through this forum, which reflects a natural extension of growing bilateral relationships between all three countries. Notable was the Minister’s repeated use of the term the “Indo-Pacific” as well as his mention of the possibility of renaming the IOR-ARC as the “Indian Ocean Community”.
While acknowledging China as the key to a peaceful and secure Asia-Pacific, most speakers mentioned the tensions arising out of overlapping territorial and jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea. Calling for restraint, and for resolution of these disputes, in a manner consistent with international law, speakers rejected the use of threats, coercion or violence. The US national interest in exercising freedom of navigation and pursuing unimpeded commerce was highlighted, as was the oft-expressed hope that the country will join over 160 other nations in ratifying the Law of Seas Convention.
India’s Defence Minister A.K. Antony, in his relatively brief speech, confined himself to issues of a general nature such as freedom of the seas, India’s maritime interests and the need for consensus-building to combat threats at sea. Making passing mention of the Indian Navy’s role in anti-piracy operations, he expressed satisfaction at India’s bilateral exchanges with a number of neighbouring countries.
At this juncture when a West-to-East power shift is said to be under way, and India happens to be one of the two foci of intense geo-political interest in Asia, it would have been natural for participants of the SLD to expect, from a senior Indian politician, something in the nature of a broad policy articulation. Some areas of curiosity in our ASEAN neighbourhood are: how India views an emerging China; how India intends to use its growing economic and military strength; India’s interests in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea; India’s vision and aspirations for an Asian security order; and how will India’s relations with the other major powers shape security governance in the region?
When compared to the intellectually challenging and thought-provoking utterances of the other speakers, it is likely that the bland and anodyne content of Antony’s speech would have disappointed his admirers and other delegates to the SLD. It is customary for cynical analysts to say that given the intensity of Indian politics and uncertainties inherent in coalition governments, India’s political horizon remains clouded by domestic issues, and the vision of our statesmen extends only to the next session of parliament, or to the next general election.
Be that as it may, unless we make a loud and clear articulation of India’s interests, concerns, views and opinions in international forums such as the SLD, we might find that it is the USA, Australia, Indonesia - or even China - which lays down policies for us.
(08-06-2012-Admiral Arun Prakash is a former Chief of the Naval Staff and former chairman, Chiefs of Staff Committee. He is currently member of National Security Advisory Board and can be contacted at email@example.com)
- India calls for closer ties among Indian Ocean nations - Oct 27, 2011
- India to keep an eye on Malacca Straits with new naval base - Jul 10, 2012
- US Defence Secretary to visit India in June - May 23, 2012
- Australia wants India to play greater role in East Asia - Aug 17, 2010
- Panetta to discuss military trade on India trip - May 31, 2012
- India pitches for global strategy to fight piracy - Nov 14, 2011
- India wants only bilateral defence ties with Australia - Dec 07, 2011
- India gets hawk eye over Strait of Malacca - Jul 30, 2012
- Bangalore to host Indian Ocean Rim countries meet - Nov 08, 2011
- Indian Ocean Rim grouping to jointly combat piracy menace (Lead) - Nov 15, 2011
- India assumes chair of Indian Ocean Rim grouping (Lead) - Nov 15, 2011
- To counter China, India needs to do naval diplomacy (Comment) - Aug 28, 2011
- Obama, Manmohan Singh to meet in Bali Nov 18 - Nov 10, 2011
- India to deepen engagement with Asia-Pacific region - Dec 07, 2011
- India gives $1 mn more to Indian Ocean Rim group fund - Nov 15, 2011
Tags: anodyne, careful note, defence ministers, economic confidence, india indonesia, indonesia malaysia, indonesian president, international audience, international institute for strategic studies, james hilton, keynote address, military influence, orations, plenary sessions, regionalism, security initiatives, singapore hotel, survivors of a plane crash, upbeat note, yudhoyono