Ms Sylvia Lim asked the Minister for Defence what are the key takeaways from the recent Shangri-La Dialogue in relation to geopolitical dynamics and the maintenance of peaceful relations in Asia and globally.
Dr Ng Eng Hen: As Singapore and MINDEF are host and facilitator, an assessment of the value of the SLD to the international community should probably be more objectively performed by third parties. That said, MINDEF will give its views and leave Members and the general public to assess their validity.
After a hiatus of two years, the resumption of an in-person SLD this year reaffirmed the importance of face-to-face engagements for defence diplomacy. That the international community found value in the SLD was reflected in Prime Minister of Japan Fumio Kishida accepting the Keynote Speaker invitation and using it to share Japan’s vision (a) for a rules-based international order built through dialogue, and the need for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific; (b) the importance of denuclearisation; and (c) the need for increased maritime cooperation. President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky also requested to address the SLD through a Special Address which proved timely and relevant, given the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war.
SLD22 garnered more than 1,600 local and international reports. The widespread media coverage by international and domestic outlets and keen interest in SLD22 by the international and domestic community affirm that the SLD remains as a premier defence and security conference in the region. Chinese State Councilor and Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe and United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd J Austin III’s plenary speeches garnered more than 350 and 150 local and international reports respectively. Both Prime Minister Kishida’s Keynote Address and President Zelensky’s Special Address were also extensively reported and each garnered more than a hundred local and international reports.
With 37 Ministerial-level delegates and 42 countries represented, SLD22 saw strong governmental participation comparable to that of pre-COVID editions. SLD22 also saw the attendance of many non-governmental delegates, including prominent local and foreign-based academics. The ability to draw such diverse participation underscores the international significance of the SLD.
Many countries, including Singapore, now regularly leverage the SLD to conduct sideline bilateral and multilateral engagements. The US convened the informal Southeast Asia-US Defence Ministers (DMs)’ meeting and a trilateral meeting between the DMs of Japan, Republic of Korea, and the US was held. Like previous years, the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA) Ministers and Representatives also met on the sidelines and updated the media on the directions of this grouping moving forward.
It is also notable that both US SecDef and Chinese DM chose to meet for the first time physically in Singapore, as did Australia Deputy Prime Minister (DPM) and DM Richard Marles and General Wei. This is significant given that these were the first face-to-face meetings between the Chinese DM and US SecDef, as well as the first meeting between any Australian and Chinese DMs in close to three years.
This strong participation at SLD22 itself affirms the role that Singapore through the SLD can play in international diplomacy to keep the peace. Many delegates have also given positive feedback about the SLD. Many DMs, particularly the new ones, related that SLD22 was an efficient platform for them to engage with their counterparts. I believe that Australia DPM and DM Richard Marles, Brunei Deputy DM Brigadier General (Rtd) Dato Seri Pahlawan Haji Abdul Razak Bin Haji Abdul Kadir, France Minister of the Armed Force Sébastien Lecornu, and Republic of Korea Minister of National Defense Lee Jong-Sup, who were recently appointed in the last two months, found SLD22 a useful opportunity to have in-person engagements with their counterparts for the first time. Many Chiefs of Defence Force also related a similar positive experience.
We joke that this is like “speed-dating” for DMs and officials but that mirth should not obscure nor diminish the value that the SLD provides in allowing concentrated meetings within a weekend. On my part, I met 16 of my counterparts bilaterally. We also had good responses to the two Ministerial Roundtables that I hosted where we engaged in frank and candid conversations.
Apart from the presence of key defence leaders, there was also positive feedback that the topics and Question & Answer sessions did address key security challenges – both traditional and non-traditional. Difficult questions ranging from traditional topics such as US-China and cross-strait relations, to newer developments such as Cambodia’s modernisation plans for the Ream Naval Base and climate change were extensively discussed.
It would be unrealistic to expect that solutions to longstanding and deeply rooted security challenges can be easily solved with one or even many meetings like the SLD. But the SLD has provided an open, neutral and regular platform for countries to exchange views on regional security issues, challenges and opportunities, as well as differences. At the end of it, I believe SLD did make a difference, and the vast majority, if not all who attended, left the meeting feeling that they had given or obtained something useful to promote defence ties with another country and contributed to regional stability.
For Singapore, the SLD enhances our small role internationally to provide an open and inclusive meeting place for all countries to resolve their differences, and to affirm common values and mutually beneficial principles that promote stability for our region and beyond.
Ministry of Defence
4 July 2022