APLN member Sarah Teo highlighted Singapore’s crucial role in facilitating dialogue among countries amid unstable major power relations and an increasingly uncertain environment for smaller states. Read the original article here.
As has been the case every year since 2002 — with the exception of 2020 and 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic — the first weekend in June saw a flurry of events centred around the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD).
Besides the formal three-day conference, dignitaries and delegates held sideline meetings, including with government agencies and think tanks in Singapore.
These were not just at the official level — there were also informal gatherings among friends and colleagues who might not have had a chance to meet up and exchange views otherwise.
Thanks to my job as an academic, I have been privileged to attend the SLD since the late 2010s. I also participated in the Southeast Asian Young Leaders Programme organised alongside the main conference in 2018.
These have given me a front-row seat to the defence diplomacy initiatives and engagements taking place in Singapore every June.
It has also made me starkly aware of the amount of effort and thought that goes into Singapore’s pursuit of and commitment to regional and global stability.
Growing up amid the post-Cold War euphoria in the 1990s, geopolitical issues were far from my mind. Looking back, the most prominent memory I had of such an issue was the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept 11, 2001 (or 9/11 in short).
Watching the tragedy unfold on live television, I was horrified. We talked about it in school the next day, but my teenage mind did not grasp the geopolitical implications of the tragedy.
The attacks would precede the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — leading to a 20-year war in the latter — and shape relations between the US and some of its Asian partners for years to come.
Closer to home, it was discovered in late 2001 that there had been plans to attack US-linked targets in Singapore, including at Yishun MRT station.
For many in my generation, the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent response to terrorism played a big part in moulding our understanding of geopolitics.
Indeed, terrorism was a key theme at the inaugural SLD in June 2002, held just nine months after the 9/11 attacks.
Then-Deputy Prime Minister and Defence Minister Tony Tan noted participating ministers’ views that “such regular exchanges are important to address the multi-faceted and transnational character of current security challenges”.
Now in its 20th edition, the SLD’s agenda has evolved since that first meeting to keep up with emerging challenges, but the value of dialogue remains consistently clear.
SINGAPORE’S CONVENOR ROLE
Amid unstable major power relations and what looks like an increasingly uncertain environment for smaller states, the role played by Singapore in convening and facilitating dialogue among countries is even more crucial.
It is not just the SLD.
Singapore’s promotion of Asean-led platforms, as well as its provision of venues for talks between contending parties — such as Mr Ma Ying-jeou (Taiwan) and Mr Xi Jinping (China) in 2015, and Mr Kim Jong Un (North Korea) and Mr Donald Trump (USA) in 2018 — also demonstrate the value that the Republic sees in dialogue and communication.
Sceptics may call out the futility of these efforts. The Ma-Xi talks in 2015 and Kim-Trump talks in 2018, for instance, did not seem to have led to a sustained improvement in the respective bilateral ties.
Asean continues to face criticisms too, as it battles both internal and external challenges that affect its cohesion and relevance in the broader region.
Viewed in this light, Singapore’s attempts to shape conducive settings for dialogue may not appear to matter in a concrete and direct sense.
Yet, it is important to recognise that although dialogue may not be the only pathway towards resolving challenges, it nevertheless remains a vital element in the toolbox of diplomacy.
This point was emphasised by Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen at this year’s SLD.
“Channels of communication — both formal and informal — must exist so that when… unplanned incidents occur, those channels can be used to de-escalate and avoid conflict,” he said.
More broadly, it is through communication that differences get worked out, even if very gradually. Communication is, in turn, a prerequisite for sustained stability.
And stability could lessen the headwinds that Singaporeans face from global challenges such as the China-US rivalry, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the Covid-19 pandemic.
BENEFITS FOR SINGAPORE
Debates about how small states like Singapore can exercise agency in their foreign relations are a popular theme in both the academic literature and policy-oriented discussions.
Former senior minister S Jayakumar’s book, aptly titled Be at the Table or Be on the Menu, offers a striking reminder of the realities faced by small states. It also shows that there’s no question that Singapore is largely a price-taker in international relations.
But even if Singapore is unable to unilaterally determine “prices”, it can take steps to ensure that the “prices” are not detrimental to its interests.
As Professor Jayakumar observed in his book, “(s)mall states are rarely invited to the table”. Therefore, they must be “agile, nimble and creative” in order to strengthen their relevance and “create economic and diplomatic space” for themselves.
What Singapore lacks in material resources, it makes up for in normative capabilities — good offices, agenda-setting influence and so on.
The role and contributions of Singapore as a convenor of international meetings build on these normative attributes.
There are certainly benefits for Singapore.
For one, it enhances the goodwill and credible reputation surrounding Singapore’s diplomacy on the international stage.
It also allows Singapore to have a seat at the table where global and regional affairs are discussed, even if it is not always directly involved in these issues.
For a small state like Singapore, the fear-of-missing-out, or “fomo” syndrome — in this case, a scenario where international affairs are decided only among the bigger powers and the interests of others are disregarded — is real.
In the current climate of geopolitical uncertainty and mistrust, Singapore’s initiatives to convene and facilitate dialogue would not always be smooth sailing.
For instance, the much-anticipated meeting between the defence ministers of China and the US did not materialise at this year’s SLD, although both parties exchanged a brief handshake at the opening dinner.
For the city-state to secure its interests and build a stable future for its people, however, efforts like the SLD would have to persist.
Image: Ili Nadhirah Mansor/TODAY