The Shangri-La Dialogue styles itself as the premier forum for defence diplomacy in Asia. Given the scale of the event, the number of countries represented and the media coverage, the description is probably warranted.
Defence diplomacy is a curious beast. Institutions and individuals whose primary function is the organised use of force are turned to the business of dialogue and communication. In a region so beset with tensions and rivalry as Asia, defence diplomacy is an important and welcome addition to the international scene.
First established in 2002 to bring together ministers of defence and senior officials to exchange points of view and build some common ground, the plenary sessions of the first day of the thirteenth Dialogue showed the extent of competition in the region and the challenges facing those trying to exercise diplomatic versions of hard power.
The tone was set during the keynote address by Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the opening night. During his remarks he defended Japan's approach to the region as in keeping with the traditions of its peace constitution, and unleashed a rhetorical fusillade on the PRC. Using carefully chosen terms, Abe persistently implied China was destabilising the region because it was not adhering to the rules of road. In subsequent addresses, America and its key allies continued on this path. Indeed, so close has been the use of language — focusing on the rule of law, challenges to the status quo and peaceful resolution of disputes — that clearly some level of coordination has been going on. The unambiguous message, whether intended or not, was that China's behaviour was not in line with the expectations of the existing order.
Shangri-La's success means that it is a most public form of soft-power diplomacy. Although in recent years Japan has lagged behind the PRC in this area, this time around, Tokyo has had Beijing's measure, at least so far. China has the disadvantage of not being in plenary until today, the second day. China's questions during the discussion session have also had a jarring and antagonistic quality.
Far from building common ground, the dialogue is providing a forum to put pressure on China. Japan, the US and others are sending a clear message to Beijing: the existing order works well and you need to accept it and work with it. Washington and its friend appear to find it hard to understand why Beijing may see things differently.
Indeed, based on events of the first day, it is easy to see why China sees the Dialogue, ostensibly neutral as it is run by the London-based think tank the International Institute for Strategic Studies, as representing an international order that is rigged against it. We will have to wait for the second day to see how Beijing responds to the gentle but calculated pressure it has been placed under so far.
Photo by Flickr user IISS.