Monday, June 2, 2014

IISS Shangri-La Dialogue needs to uplift itself from tired, old template

Now in its 13th instalment, the International Institute for Strategic Studies' (IISS) Asia Security Summit - better known as the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) as its formal name cannot be crunched into a diplomatically acceptable acronym - now marks the calendars of regional powers as a must-attend event.

What started as an attempt to rouse defence and security officials to come together for talks under a non-official, non threatening Track 2 setting has lived up to its purpose.

Heavy hitters do make time to grace the Shangri-La Hotel's Island Ballroom year after year and they attend the SLD unafraid to speak their mind.

But for the SLD to stay relevant to the region's defence and security landscape, it must remake itself as more than just a talk shop where the Track 2 label gives officials ample leeway in articulating views that may be frowned upon or impossible to voice under more official settings.

This weekend's just-ended SLD signals that early efforts by the IISS in nurturing the summit into a forum where views can be shared openly and quasi-officially, all the while sidestepping the intricacies of Track 1 diplomacy, have been achieved admirably.

That said, the SLD's makeover ought to take place soon as a failure to break out of the now-familiar format risks turning the event into a glorified shout fest where it's all talk and no action.

Staff officers from the 27 nations represented at the 13th SLD must heave a sigh of relief now that the curtains have come down on the event.

It runs like clockwork. Alas, a tad too predictably.

Anxious to lend it a regional air, the keynote address has turned into a sort of musical chairs where speakers from regional countries are invited in turn, based loosely on the security topic du jour.

On the first say of the summit, all eyes turn to the United Stated Secretary of Defense as the representative from the world's most powerful military gives its take on the state of play for power politics.

Without fail, Singapore's Minister for Defence will host a lunch reception involving all defence ministers or their representatives. The novelty of this event has worn thin on the media, and they have thankfully moved beyond colour stories of what's on the menu or who-sat-next-to-whom.

Day Two offers regional speakers their chance to rebut, respond or recount the words that dropped from SecDef's lips. By this time, everyone is waiting for the clock to tick to the final bell and the wrap up by the raconteur, the indefatigable Dr John Chipman who has an unenviable job keeping the house in order as regional players snipe at one another.

As a template, the above format has worked its magic in coaxing regional power brokers and squabbling neighbours to sit in the same room for two days of boring intense debate.[Such debates would perhaps get more attention from delegates next year if the Shangri-La killed its wifi at strategic junctures, forcing the audience to focus their attention on the speaker rather than indulge in escapism courtesy of Whatsapp.]

But here's the rub: Group dynamics fostered by getting everyone together dissipates all too quickly as the feel-good impact has little time to sink in among all present. So to borrow taglines from group dynamics theorists, the SLD template ends after the Forming and Storming  phases, leaving no opportunity for the Norming and Performing to kick into action.

It comes as little surprise that regional speech writers will jump at the liberty afforded by the SLD's Track 2 label to let fly without mincing words. You won't find another event in this region which commands the kind of audience seen at the SLD. For the assembled media, the verbal jousting makes great copy and spawns the kind of headline grabbing stories that justify their time in Singapore.

You can bet that the tenor of this year's talks will provide much food for thought for next year's instalment as the assorted speech writers and policy types run through their respective after-action debriefs.

This is why the SLD needs an urgent makeover to break out of the template. It needs to uplift itself as more than a soapbox for power brokers to flaunt their oratorical prowess. Unless it does so, the tongue wagging and finger pointing will get us nowhere. Theatrical value aside, such sideshows do wear thin after awhile and when that moment comes, the SLD's star appeal will start to wane.

To be sure, there is value in the SLD's role as a sort of pressure relief valve which allows policy makers to vent their spleen. However, such jousting needs to be managed with a firm hand lest it upsets the raison d├ętre of the summit, which is to promote peace and stability.

Architects of SLD redux could, perhaps, take a leaf from the suggestion by Singapore's Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, who urged Asia to build on multilateral frameworks such as the ADMM and ADMM-Plus to instruments of "practical cooperation and interaction" that foster regional peace and stability.

Perhaps work groups could be spawned with a longer mandate and broader terms of references that help delegates extend the theories and ideas postulated during the year's SLD. Under the work groups, the traction continues outside the Island Ballroom, enabled by technology like teleconferencing and underpinned by a broader desire to keep the tempo of regional cooperation going. Such work groups could sum up their success (or lack thereof) at the following year's summit. Done this way, there will be some continuity between each year's summit, a kind of intellectual bridging that ties the events together rather than having each summit stream into your consciousness like a flash bang - loud but short-lived.

Those familiar with the ADMM-Plus exercise hosted by Brunei will know the role the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) served in pulling things together. Whether or not the men and women from the SAF get screen credits for their work is beside the point. What matters is that 18 nations and 18 military forces converged in the Brunei sultanate to confer, coordinate and cooperate with one another, in so doing creating opportunities unseen at any previous regional military exercise.

Talk is cheap. It is time for sustained action to generate and sustain positive vibes between regional military forces.

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