Shangri-La: an earthly paradise, a Tibetan concept of utopia.
Shangri-La Dialogue: an earthly para-diplomatic conference, a Singaporean concept of influence.
That’s right. Not content with sending some of its army of correspondents to the Venice Biennale this weekend, where the DLR has had to endure champagne, art and parties, we have also despatched our rabid hordes to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where we have had to endure humidity, politics and hour-long speaking sessions by dark-suited Asian ministers. I think we know which correspondents have got the best deal.
Still, the SLD 2011 has had some interesting tidbits. Amid all the bland statements by East Asian ministers, talking disingenuously about peace, co-operation and trust while at the same time building record numbers of boats, tanks and guns, some nibs have emerged.
Robert Gates gave his final major policy statement in Asia before stepping down on 1 July. He avoided the temptation of giving a valedictory address full of post-policy justifications and self-laudatory remarks, and instead offered a solid exposition of continued US commitment to East Asian allies. The subtext, though, appeared to be “our budget’s shrinking and our focus is on the Middle East – sorry, Asia.”
General Liang Guanglie, China’s defence minister, brought to the conference the best combover seen since Bobby Charlton in ’66. He also brought the longest speech: 45 minutes of interspersing the words ‘peace’ and ‘co-operation’ with banal verbs, while failing to mention, say, the aircraft carrier they’re about to launch, the new stealth fighter they’ve built, anti-satellite weapons or the anti-ship ballistic missile that’s got everyone east of Hawaii hot under the collar. Still, his presence, as the first ministerial-level delegation to Shangri-La, was significant in itself.
Some pointed remarks were directed at Liang by Vietnamese, Philippine and other ministers, irate at recent events in the South China Sea that suggest a more assertive China. But in reality, the real talking is done in the backroom bilateral meetings held on the sidelines of the conference.
Two things seemed to be apparent from the weekend, though. One, Sino-US positions in Southeast Asia are hardening and the regional countries are increasingly concerned by Beijing’s newfound confidence. And two, if you’re hosting a conference in Singapore in 95% humidity, don’t have an outdoor evening party; watching ageing white men soak their shirts with sweat is enough to put even the DLR off its dinner.