In contrast to previous years, the 2010 Shangri La Dialogue was somewhat muted, though it was not surprising given the current international climate. This seems to be a case of the global economic situation taking precedence over security concerns - and while the threat of terrorism still exists, the gap of 9 years since September 11 has resulted in terrorism being relegated by many governments to the backburner.
The issue of North Korea’s sinking of the Cheonan was of primary focus with South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak delivering the forum’s keynote address in which he denounced North Korea for that act. As well as condemning actions against the South, he bluntly told the North: “give up your nuclear ambitions”. The South Korean President also called upon the international community to act strongly against North Korea. At the same time he stressed that the South was not seeking conflict and would continue to work towards peaceful reunification. As with previous Shangri-La Dialogues, North Korea had been invited to send an official delegation to but declined to do so.
South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae Young continued on the same tack as his President in his plenary speech, along with repeating the evidence that showed that North Korea was responsible for the sinking of the Cheonan. This was help by the South Korean delegation making sure that copies of the report by the international team which had investigated the sinking was distributed widely.
When it came to his turn US Defence Secretary Robert Gates stated that the US would give full support to South Korea and would stand by its ally. He also stated that inaction to respond to North Korea would be an abdication by regional nations to maintain security and stability in the region - an indirect swipe at China - which has refused to blame the North Koreans for the Cheonan’s sinking. Gates also noted that the US was concerned with competing claims in the South China Sea and stated that it would oppose the use of force and any threat to freedom of the seas - again another indirect statement pointed towards China. Robert Gates Gates also criticized China for allowing US-China military relations to be affected by the issue of US arms sales to Taiwan, noting that political and economic cooperation between the countries had continued normally despite the sales. Gates message to China was that US arms sales to Taiwan was something the Chinese would have to accept and live with.
Naturally this led to a strong response by the Chinese delegation. Major General Zhu Chenghu of the PRC’s National Defense University said in the Q and A session with Gates that the arms sale gave the messge to China that while China treated the US as a friend, the US treated it like an enemy. He added that most Chinese see the sales as “being intended to prevent the unification of China”. Major General Zhu also cast doubt as to who was responsible for the Cheonan’s sinking and stated that the US response to it compared to the Israeli action over the Gaza flotilla was markedly different. Gates responded that the US does not consider China an enemy and that there was cooperation between the two countries on various fields, which made the lack of progress in military ties stand out even more. He also said there were clear differences between what happened in the Cheonan’s sinking and the Gaza flotilla.
General Ma Xiaotian, the PLA’s Deputy Chief of Staff, in a later presentation that day, strongly rejected Gates assertion, saying that countries should accommodate each other’s concern and build security partnership on an equal footing. In the Q and A session, General Ma said that the United States was the one disrupting military cooperation through its arms sales to Taiwan and conducting surveillance in China’s 200 mile EEZ. At this forum, much was made of the fact that Gates refused to shake hands with General Ma at the opening dinner - though some observers close to the incident said that Gates was simply fatigued from the long flight to Singapore from Washington and did not notice General Ma and this was not a deliberate snub. The two men did shake hands on the second day - though it was clearly showed that tensions existed between the two countries since no bilateral meetings took place, which is a departure from the practice of previous Shangri-La Dialogues.
Meanwhile the ASEAN countries, reflecting their concerns over such regional rivalries highlighted the forthcoming ASEAN Defence Minister’s Meeting Plus that will take place in Vietnam in October. The ADMM plus will involve all ten ASEAN defence minister plus representatives of Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Russia and the US and is geared at an ASEAN-driven security architecture. The intention is that this will engage the major non-ASEAN powers in the region.
As always at such forums, the Russians managed to raise eyebrows. Russian Deputy Prime Minister Sergei Ivanov during the Q and A after his presentation, stated that the Russians killed and imprisoned people from 53 countries during the insurgency in Chechnya in a manner that indicated that such was routine for the Russians.