Kelvin Wong, of the IISS Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme, reflects on the insights provided by senior executives of major international defence companies speaking at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

By Kelvin Wong, Weapons and Equipment Editor, IHS Jane's

It came as little surprise that the territorial row over the South China Sea dominated discussions at the 2016 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, which took place in Singapore in early June, given fresh revelations of China's continued land reclamation and military build-up in the strategic maritime area since the previous year's event. Beijing's robust pledge to dismiss the outcome of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague – to be made public just weeks after the Dialogue on 12 July – on a submission by the Philippine government that challenged aspects of China's claims and activities, had also put it under the international spotlight.

Regional challenges – some perennial, others emerging – also garnered much attention during the packed three-day event. The convergence of senior policy and defence officials from all over the world on the summit bore testament to the fact that while Asia may be geographically distant for some, threats to peace and prosperity are shared by all.

The event also marked the launch of the Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme (SEAYLP). As a SEAYLP delegate, I was able to engage with other like-minded regional delegates and learn about their respective concerns with the increasingly uncertain security environment. With the diversity of participants' backgrounds – including academics, business executives, government officials and journalists – the spectrum of views that were offered was correspondingly unique.

This variety of insights was apparent throughout the entirety of the Dialogue; one particularly interesting aspect was the inclusion of perspectives from senior executives of major international defence equipment and services providers in the Special Sessions. It was a welcome initiative that was inaugurated in the 2015 Dialogue, with participants such as Christopher Chadwick, former president and chief executive officer of Boeing's Defense, Space and Security business, and Patrick Dewar, former executive vice president of Lockheed Martin International.

Speaking in the 2015 'Challenges for Maritime Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance' (ISR) session, both panellists highlighted the difficulties of securing the maritime domain with limited resources and explained how their respective companies could offer – what they emphasised to be affordable and efficient – multi-mission capabilities to address the 'tyranny of distance' in maritime ISR. Technology cooperation was also raised, with promises of 'win-win' relationships between defence companies and local partners.

The same theme was carried over to this year. Director-General of International Relations and Strategy at the French Ministry of Defence Philippe Errera spoke on France's defence capability development and Marillyn Hewson, president and chief executive officer of Lockheed Martin, spoke on the company's technologies and how the industry could support regional stakeholders with new innovations and affordable solutions.

It is no surprise that Hewson took the opportunity to highlight some of the company's key products, including the C-130 Hercules transport aircraft and the F-16 multirole combat aircraft, both of which are widely used around the world. She explained how these platforms have provided operators with the full spectrum of capabilities, from humanitarian assistance and disaster relief to counter-terrorism and high-end conventional threats.

With the company heavily invested in developing and building the F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter and seeking to increase its international customer base, she also proposed that the aircraft's high level of interoperability, combined with its inherent ISR capabilities, would provide countries with a cost-effective means of seamlessly sharing intelligence with partners.

While the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue is principally a platform for building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation, with geopolitics taking centre-stage, the new defence technology element is nevertheless salient because such technology provides the necessary means for countries to pursue their policy agendas. The increasing mastery of advanced weapon and military platform development has emboldened certain regional countries to act with increasing assertiveness.

Apart from the panellists, senior executives and representatives of major defence companies around the world – from countries such as Germany, Sweden, and the United Kingdom – were also in attendance at the event. With Asia-Pacific defence spending continuing to grow at a robust pace – IHS Jane's notes that total regional expenditure reached USD435.1 billion in 2015, with growth increasing from 4.7% to 5.2% – the Shangri-La Dialogue appears to be an increasingly important event for industry to engage with potential customers and renew relationships with existing ones.

Kelvin Wong is Weapons and Equipment Editor at IHS Jane's, covering defence technology developments in the Asia-Pacific. The opinions voiced here are his own, and do not necessarily reflect the views of IHS Global. He attended the 15th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue as part of the Southeast Asian Young Leaders' Programme.

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