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Shangri La Dialogue: Is Indian Participation a Necessity?

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • May 29, 2015

    There has been a criticism that the Indian defence ministry is ‘missing the bus’ in defence diplomacy for last few years because it is not adequately representing itself in the Shangri La Dialogue, an inter-governmental forum which organises annual meetings of defence ministers and policy makers of 28 Asia-Pacific states. India’s longest serving Defence Minister, A K Antony, had attended this dialogue only once; and now neither the current Defence Minister nor his deputy will be present at the 14th Asia Security Summit popularly known as the Shangri La Dialogue that will convene in Singapore from 29-31 May, 2015.

    The Shangri La Dialogue, which began in 2002, has acquired an important stature as a forum that facilitates the engagement of key defence officials from the Asia Pacific region. The concept of the Shangri La Dialogue has similarities with the Munich Security Conference (1963). Shangri La Dialogue yearly meetings have been viewed as a perfect platform for defence diplomacy. In addition to the official agenda, such meetings do allow for informal discussions among the delegates on the sidelines. Also slots are available for official or informal bilateral meetings. For any state, the presence of top level government officials in such meetings offers an opportunity for the projection of their political agendas and putting new ideas on table. The format of this dialogue permits break-out group discussions on specific issues of their interest.

    Shangri La Dialogue has also motivated some others to initiate similar forums. During 2009, a Halifax International Security Forum was established as a programme within the German Marshall Fund of the United States (a nonpartisan American public policy think tank established in 1972) and with the financial support from the Canadian government. Similar to the Shangri La Dialogue, this forum conducts annual meetings and has 40 member states, mostly North American, as partners. The famous American journal of international relations the ‘Foreign Affairs’ has joined this forum as a media partner and the forum has also gained a reputation, as Shangri La has, as the ‘Davos of international Security’.

    Shangri La Dialogue is viewed as an important regional security institution and has important states like Japan, China, France, Germany, Australia, United States (US), and United Kingdom (UK) etc as members. India is already engaging most of these states both at economic and strategic levels. At bilateral level India has Strategic Dialogues with many of these states and in fact Indian Prime Minister has visited many of them in the recent past. Military diplomacy could be viewed as a subset of India’s strategic engagement with these states and Indian armed forces are conducting joint military exercises with many of them. India’s ministerial presence at the Shangri La Dialogue could have helped India to articulate the new government’s strategic thought and expand from the realm of military diplomacy to defence diplomacy. This forum also provides an opportunity for the policy makers to interact with academics and other important people having ‘influence’.

    So, is India’s defence establishment blind to probable benefits of participating in the Dialogue or are they thinking differently? Probably, India is ready to miss some possible tactical gains to ensure that it would not drift with the tide and give needless importance to every multilateral mechanism just to remain in the ‘circuit’. Perhaps, India also understands the snob (!) value behind attending such forums.

    Shangri La Dialogue is sold as a track-one interaction coordinated by a track two organisation. Mainly, a UK based think-tank (a nongovernmental organisation) called International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) organises this event with support from the Singaporean government. IISS was founded in the UK in 1958 with a focus on nuclear deterrence and arms control. Their present core interest is the Military Balance, an assessment of various armed forces. So naturally, such a dialogue is very helpful. It also benefits to expand the brand image of the organisation. This dialogue gets attended by delegates specifically identified and invited. The basic itinerary/agenda for such meetings is normally decided by the organisers/event funders.

    Apart from this yearly interaction, there are various other bilateral or multilateral mechanisms available in Asia-Pacific region for defence cooperation and diplomacy. India has interests in various such instruments for wider defence engagement. India has strategic partnership agreements with Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, ROK, Malaysia and Australia. Also, during 2012, India-ASEAN Strategic Partnership agreement was signed. In addition since 2005 a mechanism called India–China Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity has been put in place. For debate on defence issues, forums like ASEAN Defence Minister's Meeting (ADMM) Plus are available. India is also supportive of the important security initiatives in the region like Malaysia-Singapore-Indonesia (MALSINDO) trilateral naval patrols and the Eyes in the Sky (EIS) air patrol. Also, there is a pact: Regional Cooperation Agreement on Combating Piracy and Armed Robbery against Ships in Asia (ReCAAP). In principle, India also agrees with the idea of South East Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) Treaty.

    A cursory look at this year’s 14th IISS Asia Security Summit, Shangri-La Dialogue shows that nothing new is likely to be discussed during this meeting. The agenda is similar to any other meeting happening on this subject. Discussions would be held on issues like terrorism, energy security, maritime security, preventing conflict escalation etc. Also, discussion would be held on understanding new forms of security collaboration in Asia. Possibly, the purpose could be to get fresh ideas for evolving some new security architecture for the region.

    The need for India’s high-level participation in this dialogue should be viewed more from a realist perspective than considering that India should jump on every such available bandwagon. India is likely to remain as one of the biggest importers of military hardware in the near future. Naturally, owing to their economic interests, big powers have no other option but to keep India engaged irrespective of whether the Indian Defence Minister attends any multilateral meet.

    One of the biggest challenges for Indian policy makers is to balance the ‘China scare’ put forth by analysts within and outside the country. Since 2007, the Shangri-La Dialogue has attracted top-level participation from China. It is understandable that the China threat should be taken seriously. However, this does not mean that in every platform where China is making its presence felt, India should also try to assert.

    It is important to appreciate that such platforms are partly also socializing institutions. They are evolved, developed and marketed in a very subtle way for ‘suitably shaping’ a debate on the strategic issues. It is not always necessary that India should join the initiatives of other think-tanks and get swayed with the ideas generated there. The time has now come for India to use its own think-tanks to influence the regional defence agenda.

    Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd) is Assistant Director, IDSA.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India