We are often given the incorrect impression by some of our media vehicles that speeches by our leaders at multilateral conferences are “game changers”. Take for instance our Prime Minister’s keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue (June 1) in Singapore. It was claimed that he was the first Indian PM to have been given the distinction to deliver the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue since its inception. While this may be factually true, it was not mentioned that this is only a conference of defence ministers and not any higher level. Had this conference been that important, our then Defence Minister Arun Jaitley would not have skipped the Dialogue in 2017.
Similarly, an incredulous claim was made by some sections of our media that the US Pacific Command (PACOM) was renamed the “Indo-Pacific Command” (INDOPACOM) by the US Defence Secretary James Mattis on May 30 in recognition of the growing importance of India under the BJP-led government. Mattis never said that during the welcoming ceremony of the new PACOM commander Admiral Phil Davidson where the renaming was announced. He said that “all nations large and small are essential to the region in order to sustain stability in ocean areas critical to global peace”. No doubt he also added that the Command covered “over half of the earth’s surface and its diverse populations, from Hollywood to Bollywood, from polar bears to penguins”.
A Brookings paper (June 8) quoting US defence sources said: “Adding the Indian Ocean to the mix dilutes China’s influence: It increases the size of the pond and adds other fish that are less amenable to swimming to its tune”. In other words, it was a strategic ploy for drawing China out into a larger sea to reduce its influence.
The Shangri-La Dialogue was started in 2002 for Asian defence ministers like the annual Munich Security Conference which was initiated in 1963 by the “Stauffenberg Circle” to avoid future wars. It was named after the Bavarian noble Stauffenberg who was executed in 1944 for leading the “Valkyrie conspiracy” against Hitler.
The idea of setting up an annual conference in Munich was to enable global security officials to meet regularly to avoid conflicts. “Foreign Policy” (Feb 20, 2018) said that the original idea was to create “a tight-knit gathering for US and German officials to quietly talk shop on how to prevent future armed conflicts”. In 1996, a similar conference for Asia-Pacific defence ministers was suggested by US Defense Secretary William Perry. It could be achieved only in 2001 by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) at Hotel Shangri-La, Singapore.
Over a period of time, both conferences have deviated from the original ideas of conflict resolution. The 2018 Munich Conference was noted for “frayed tempers, sabre-rattling and ultimatums” between Iran and Israel. With 150 “side-events” and 2,100 separate “bilat” private” meetings, this gathering has lost its effectiveness. Similar complaints were made about the Shangri-La dialogue which, according to eminent Asia-Pacific observer Mark Valencia, has “exacerbated relations between China and the United States” rather than building linkages and confidence. Like the September UN Session, both Munich and Singapore conferences have been reduced to annual jamborees.
Did our Prime Minister’s keynote speech make any impact on the Asian conflict theatre? South China Morning Post, (SCMP-June 9), while complimenting the Indian Prime Minister’s “measured, and comprehensive” speech on “linkages” transcending “great power rivalry” lamented that other developments overrode his ideas.
The first was the domineering influence of US Defense officials in translating the “muscular” idea of former US PACOM Admiral Harry Harris, now US Ambassador designate to South Korea, to rejuvenate the defunct Quadrilateral Alliance (Quad) of the US-led coalition (Japan, Australia and India), to check China in the East and South China Seas. SCMP complained that US Defense Secretary James Mattis’s speech on “this confrontational us-versus-them position” almost negated Modi’s position on treating China “as a combination of threats and opportunities, which will have to be dealt with on a case-to-case basis rather than in Manichean-existential terms”.
The second was Indonesia’s position that “ASEAN should remain at the heart of the conceptualisation, preservation and evolution of the Indo-Pacific theatre” by “open, transparent and inclusive” order and “it is the regional body’s values that should continue to guide the interaction among major powers”.
Our Prime Minister also attended the Shanghai Cooperation Council (SCO) at Qingdao (June 9-10) as a full member. SCO was originally set up as “Shanghai-5” in 1996 as a confidence building measure among Eurasian states by demilitarizing borders after a treaty between China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Russia and Tajikistan. Uzbekistan was added in 2001 and the name was changed to “Shanghai Cooperation Council” (SCO). India, Pakistan and Iran were admitted as “Observers” in 2005.
Despite the passage of 17 years, there is still no clarity on the effectiveness of SCO even in confronting non-controversial subjects like drugs or terrorism. At first, our full membership was opposed by China but backed by Russia. At that time there were feelings in New Delhi that we should not, as a strong regional power, seek membership of such regional forums like SCO where we will have less influence and status. Hence the only advantage for India is to use such occasions as opportunities for bilateral meetings like the one between Prime Minister Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping on June 9.
The larger point is that there is a less than robust analysis of foreign affairs, and the media tends to hype up developments. This will not help us as a nation better understand or analyse what essentially are complex issues and nuanced presentations. More robust discussions and analyses are required even if the area is foreign affairs and the obvious side to support is India.
(Vappala Balachandran is a former Special Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat and author of the recently released book ”Keeping India Safe: The Dilemma of Internal Security)
(Syndicate: The Billion Press).