Reflections from the 17th Shangri-La Dialogue

Jul 02, 2018

By Jeanette Kwek

First of all, my gratitude to IISS and the generous sponsors of their Southeast Asian Young Leaders Programme for the opportunity to spend a weekend at the 17th edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD). A real win was having Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi give the keynote address, a long-awaited first for the SLD. This year’s line-up of defence ministers at the Dialogue also reflected how the Indo-Pacific will be critical to global stability and prosperity over next decade. Unsurprisingly, the winning hashtags were #IndoPacific and #CVID (referring to “complete, verifiable, irreversible denuclearisation” of North Korea). The “rules-based order” – last year’s watch word – made an appearance, but the conversation appears to have moved on to defining the freshly-renamed region (Indo- not Asia-Pacific), and the question of who makes and enforces the rules.

As befitting a foresight outfit, I’ll focus here on what I thought were gaps in the conversation this past weekend.

The most obvious missing piece was consideration of the impact of 4th industrial revolution (4IR) technologies on national security and security policy. There was a well-attended special session [“New strategic technologies and the future of conflict”] and a pre-Dialogue panel (which was also the very first all-female leadership panel) on the question of new technologies. The delegates demonstrated – by showing up! – that this is a key emerging issue. In between calling for women to #LeanIn in STEM and national security, IISS’s new Deputy Director-General Kori Schake articulated the challenge to national security sharply and succinctly: new technologies expand the battle space; they are asymmetric, with a strong first-mover advantage; they are outside of government reach most of the time, and not within the realm of the traditional defence industry; and finally, that “diversity is an essential part of problem-solving” (a shout out for #WomenInDefence!). However, none of the main plenaries touched on the topic in any depth. This is understandable – the SLD has always focused on traditional questions of geopolitics and security. If we look at how counter-terrorism has become a “traditional” non-traditional security threat which gets air time at the main plenaries, though, the transformative nature of technologies such as robotics and AI surely mean that they deserve discussion at the main table too.

To my mind, the big questions around 4IR technologies are how they will first enhance, then supplant human action in the battle space; how they will change the speed and nature of decision-making; and how the convergence of different technologies – 4IR, connectivity, biotech, the energy revolution, for example – will eventually transform the security landscape as we know it. Taking a more expansive definition of national security, we should also consider how these technologies will transform how we interact with each other and with our environment, and through that, change society. Governments have been presented with new ways to connect with and provide better service to their citizens than ever before, which can also have beneficial effects on our security. Singapore will host some of this discussion later in the month at the inaugural Singapore Defence Technology Summit, which has adopted as its theme “Impact of the 4th Industrial Revolution on Defence and Security”.

The second major gap was the question of economic engagement, both of and within the region. The regional security environment has changed in the last decade, to the point where it is impossible to understand regional countries’ actions without taking a holistic, geo-economic view. Here, China clearly has the advantage as a major trade partner and investor in the region, and with the launch of its much-hyped Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Despite growing uneasiness about the BRI, the US has yet to offer the region a good alternative. In a Straits Times opinion piece, Senior Director of the Centre for a New American Security’s Asia-Pacific Security Programme Patrick Cronin said that the US could not expect to inspire leadership in the region “simply by showing up”. American competitiveness, innovation, and know-how had to be applied to the cause of economic prosperity and human advancement in the region, a call echoed by US Secretary for Defence James Mattis in his plenary remarks. In the meantime, it has been Japan, architect of the “free and open Indo-Pacific” strategy, that has been taking the lead in articulating the competing economic strategy in this space. In 2016, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pledged a US$200 billion investment in “quality infrastructure”. Since then, Japan and India have been collaborating on infrastructure projects such as the Matarbari port expansion in Bangladesh, quietly putting in action a joint strategy to provide alternative sources for financing in the Indo-Pacific.

Jeanette Kwek is Deputy Head of the Centre for Strategic Futures.

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Last updated: 26 Jul 2018