DPG Policy Brief

The Illusions of Shangri-La

Date: June 09, 2024
The annual Shangri-La Dialogue links London to Singapore and has increasingly become an attempt to socialise Western security interests in Southeast Asia. This year’s event, held in Singapore from May 31-June 02, reflected the further advance of this trend.

The backdrop for this year’s gathering of Defence Ministers and security practitioners was defined by ongoing wars in Ukraine and Gaza, continuing Houthi strikes against shipping in the Red Sea, the prolonged standoff between India and China in Ladakh, and rising tensions in the Asia-Pacific due to China’s assertions of its revisionist claims. However, the Red Sea disruptions and Himalayan tensions did not come up for discussion, while on the rest, the security meet remained short of new ideas on how to ameliorate the situation.

In this brief, the author assesses the statements by leaders from the Philippines, US, China, Indonesia and Ukraine on pertinent issues. An acknowledgment of the necessity of dialogue was perhaps the only change from last year. The dichotomy of the West seeking dialogue in Asia while pressing for maximalist objectives in Ukraine remained apparent.

President Ferdinand Marcos of the Philippines provided the spark in his opening keynote, drawing attention to the actions of an ‘unnamed’ country that sought to propagate excessive and baseless claims through force, intimidation and deception. While observing that the agency of regional nations as well as ASEAN unity and centrality were under challenge, he reaffirmed his country’s commitment to dialogue and diplomacy.

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin sought to reassure US strategic partners in the Indo-Pacific regarding continuing US commitment towards the region. China’s defence minister Dong Jun propagated China’s commitments to peace and harmony, while underlining its resolve to secure its core interests.
Indonesia’s President-elect Prabowo Subianto reiterated his vision to bring about peace in Ukraine by first freezing the conflict, while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy sought to isolate Russia and obtain support for the forthcoming ‘Global Peace Summit’.  
Participants professed unanimity on observing the rule of law, including UNCLOS, but their interpretations remained widely divergent.  China painted developments in the South China Sea as a law-and-order problem, which did not imperil regional security. Having denounced the binding arbitration award on its expansive South China Sea claims, China is conscious that there is no legal or other solution (short of war) that can set back its creeping exercise of sovereignty over this strategic and resource rich waterway. 

The author concludes that this edition of the Shangri-La Dialogue was largely at attempt to downplay US-China tensions in East Asia and draw Southeast Asian support for the West’s security interests in Europe, irrespective of regional realities and sensibilities. From Asian eyes, the conflicts  in Ukraine and Gaza, and tensions over China’s assertions in the South China Sea, remain separate and distinct issues. Whether Europe and Asia can actually do anything of note for each other on their respective regional security and stability issues, therefore, remains entirely questionable.

To read this Policy Brief Volume IX, Issue 14, please click “The Illusions of Shangri-La”.