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Shangri-La Dialogue: Sounds of silence

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COMMENTS

7 June 2010 08:20

Sometimes what is left unsaid is more profound than what is said. This was very much the case at the 2010 Asian security dialogue held at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore at the weekend. For me, there were at least three palpable and troubling silences.

Silence number one: extraordinarily, China thought it could get away with saying precisely nothing about the sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan, now internationally proven to have been by a North Korean torpedo. General Ma Xiaotian made no mention of this in his public address.

When pressed in question time, he instead tried to focus the room's attention on the Gaza flotilla bloodshed; awful, but half a world away. Nor did General Ma make any effort to address directly the fact that the PLA's decision to suspend military dialogue with the US in recent months will raise the risks of confrontation and miscalculation during what are set to be tense times ahead in Asia.

It is welcome, of course, that Beijing these days is willing to field a senior and articulate general to address a regional security gathering. But the gulf between Ma's obfuscations and US Defence Secretary Gates' plain talking was disappointingly stark and does not bode well. In nine years of Shangri-La dialogues, this was the first with the faintest whiff of new Cold War.

Silence number two: there was lots of talk of the security 'architecture' that Asia will need to manage growing tensions, but I heard not a single delegate from a single country other than Australia say a good word in open forum about what is left of Kevin Rudd's meandering 'Asia-Pacific community' initiative.

Notably, the keynote speaker, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, made no mention of it. Instead, all the praise seemed to be reserved for the new ASEAN-plus-eight defence ministers' meeting. Little wonder: this gathering, to be inaugurated in Hanoi in October, has just the right membership — exactly the same 18 countries that will comprise an expanded East Asia Summit when, as is highly likely, the US and Russia gain admission.

The lone spruiker for the Rudd initiative was the Australian Defence Minister, Senator John Faulkner.

Silence number three: as for Senator Faulkner's wider speech, in a session on alliances and partnerships, it dwelt at peculiar length on the Five Power Defence Arrangement, leaving none of us much the wiser about what this rather motley old Commonwealth club is actually good for these days.

Yes, he also said the proper things about the US alliance, and Australia's rightly-growing partnership with South Korea (and incidentally, he deserves credit for sending Australian experts to the international panel that probed the Cheonan sinking). But his presentation was inexplicably silent on other important security partnerships for Australia's future, notably India, Japan and bilaterally with Singapore.

And when asked directly in open session what his advice would be to get US-China defence dialogue back on track, he chose to say...nothing.

An odd moment indeed for an activist Australian Government that claims to want to shape the region's strategic future. 

Photo by Flickr user Kradlum, used under a Creative Commons license.

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