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The 16th Asia Security Summit, Singapore, 2–4 June 2017.


The first Shangri-La Dialogue was convened by the IISS in 2002 in response to the evident need for a forum where the principals of the region’s national defence establishments – together with their counterparts from the United States and other Western countries with important security interests in the Asia-Pacific – could engage in dialogue aimed at building mutual confidence and fostering practical cooperation. Since then it has become, as Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull said in his keynote address to the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, ‘one of the world’s great strategic gatherings’. Originally known as the Asia Security Summit, it remains the only annual meeting for Asia-Pacific defence ministers together with permanent heads of defence ministries and military chiefs; a parallel meeting convenes intelligence chiefs from selected regional and extra-regional states. The Shangri-La Dialogue has come to be seen internationally as a vital Asia-Pacific security institution. It provides an opportunity for governments not only to explain their defence and security concerns and to publicise their defence policies, but also to develop their bilateral and other contacts with each other. The Shangri-La Dialogue has helped to cultivate a sense of community among the security establishments of regional countries and of other powers with significant stakes in the Asia-Pacific. Governments, the expert community and the media have increasingly viewed the substance and tone of exchanges at the Dialogue as important indicators of the state of the region’s security.


Because of the great geographical extent of the region with which the Shangri-La Dialogue is concerned, the diversity of participant states, and the broad spectrum of security challenges evident in the region, the IISS has always sought to ensure that the Dialogue’s agenda is wide-ranging. There is no confected overarching theme for each year’s Dialogue; rather the agenda has consistently reflected what the Institute sees as the most important contemporary and emerging security concerns in the region. In 2017, there was considerable thematic continuity from the previous year’s Shangri-La Dialogue; however, an important new concern arose in the form of many regional states’ anxiety over whether the Trump administration would prove to be a reliable security partner.

Discussion at the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue mirrored increasingly acute regional and international concern over the challenge posed by North Korea’s nuclear-weapon and missile programmes. From the first plenary address by US Secretary of Defense James Mattis onwards, ministers underscored the seriousness with which their countries viewed the Pyongyang regime’s provocative behaviour and the consequent rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula. However, responding effectively to this problem remained as complex and challenging as ever. Although Mattis claimed that ‘the era of strategic patience is over’, there was little sense of new policy options beyond further reinforcing sanctions against North Korea. Moreover, China and Russia again used the Shangri-La Dialogue as a platform from which to draw attention to their unhappiness over the US deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense anti-missile systems in South Korea.

The issue of China’s maritime assertiveness, and its relations with the US and other Asia-Pacific security actors, remained foci for discussion at the 2017 Dialogue. However, there was rather less heat in the debate over maritime security than at the previous several years’ Shangri-La Dialogues. This was perhaps surprising, given that over the previous 12 months Beijing’s policies and practice in its maritime littoral had continued on essentially the same trajectory – and this despite the July 2016 ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) in The Hague overwhelmingly in favour of a case brought by the Philippines that challenged China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea. However, some Southeast Asian countries – notably the Philippines under its new president, Rodrigo Duterte, has inclined towards accommodating China’s behaviour, while during early 2017 the new US administration under President Trump appeared to lack a clear strategy for dealing with China’s assertiveness. This changed somewhat shortly before the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue when, in late May, the US Navy conducted its first Freedom of Navigation Operation (FONOP) in the South China Sea under the Trump administration. The FONOP neatly set the scene for Mattis’s warning to Beijing in his plenary address at the Dialogue that the PCA ruling was binding and that China should desist from infringing other states’ interests in the East and South China Seas. In their plenary addresses, other countries’ defence ministers – including France’s Sylvie Goulard and New Zealand’s Mark Mitchell – also emphasised the importance of freedom of navigation in regional waters. People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegates in plenary sessions and in the special session concerned with the avoidance of conflict at sea emphasised the potential of the China–ASEAN Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to help manage tensions, but also spoke of the danger that FONOPs might exacerbate these same tensions.

The threat posed by the evident connections between the so-called Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, in the Middle East, and jihadis in the Asia-Pacific region (particularly Southeast Asia) was again the most prominent non-state security challenge discussed at the Dialogue. The crisis in Marawi in the southern Philippines, where local terrorists declaring allegiance to the Islamic State seized control of part of the city on 23 May, underscored the importance of the topic for the delegations of several Southeast Asian countries, as well as their extra-regional partners, and it was raised repeatedly in plenary addresses by ministers. Singapore’s defence minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, emphasised the importance of intelligence cooperation and information-sharing in regional and international counter-terrorism efforts.

General Udomdej Sitabutr, Deputy Minister of Defence, Thailand and Dr Ng Eng Hen, Minister for Defence, Singapore Professor François Heisbourg, Chairman of the Council, IISS; Dr John Chipman, Director-General and Chief Executive, IISS and Sylvie Goulard, Minister for Armed Forces, France

Since late 2016, a major new concern for governments and defence establishments invested in the Asia-Pacific region’s security has been the impact of Donald Trump’s US presidential election victory on American commitments to allies, security partners and other regional countries. These commitments are widely seen as vital to the maintenance of the rules-based order which has provided the essential framework for the Asia-Pacific’s security and prosperity. Regional anxiety over this matter made itself felt in from the beginning to the end of the 2017 Shangri-La Dialogue. US Secretary of Defense Mattis insisted in his plenary speech that the US commitment was ‘enduring’, but not all delegates from the region were reassured. This was evident not only in the discussion that immediately followed Mattis’s address, but also in some ministerial speeches over the subsequent day and a half. In the final plenary session, Singapore’s defence minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, highlighted the disappointment of his country and others in the region over the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership as a consequence of its ‘America First’ doctrine.

It has become a tradition that the Shangri-La Dialogue starts with a keynote address at the opening dinner delivered by a political leader from a leading participant state. At the inaugural Dialogue in 2002, Singapore’s then-senior minister Lee Kuan Yew spoke; he was followed in subsequent years by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and then-senior minister Goh Chok Tong. In 2009, Kevin Rudd, then-prime minister of Australia delivered the keynote address, followed in 2010 by then-president Lee Myung-bak of the Republic of Korea, in 2011 by Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak of Malaysia, in 2012 by then-president Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono from Indonesia, in 2013 by then-prime minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam, and in 2014 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. In 2015, the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independent statehood, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivered the keynote address, followed by Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha of Thailand in 2016.

In 2017, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia was the latest in this series of notable leaders to open the Shangri-La Dialogue. In his keynote address, Prime Minister Turnbull emphasised Australia’s view that a ‘rules-based structure’ for the region was vital for continued dynamism. He spoke particularly about China’s increasingly important regional role and the need for it to strengthen the regional order by respecting its neighbours’ sovereignty. He also highlighted the challenge for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) of ensuring that it sustained its role ‘in a more complex future’, and promised that Australia would be an engaged and constructive partner in facing the region’s challenges.

Major-General Onesy Senesouk, Deputy Minister of National Defence, Laos; Lieutenant-General Nguyen Duc Hai, Director, Institute for Defence Strategic Studies, Ministry of National Defence, Vietnam and Rear Admiral Myint Nwe, Deputy Minister for Defense, Myanmar

On the Dialogue’s second day, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis’s address in the first plenary session was on the topic of ‘The United States and Asia-Pacific security’. The second plenary, on ‘Upholding the rules-based regional order’, featured an all-female panel comprising Japanese Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada, Australian Minister of Defence Marise Payne, and French Minister for Armed Forces Sylvie Goulard. In the third plenary session, Malaysian defence minister Dato’ Seri Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, Canadian minister of national defence Harjit Singh Sajjan, and the Chairman of Pakistan’s Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, discussed ‘New challenges for crisis management in the Asia-Pacific’.

On the Saturday afternoon, four special sessions chaired by IISS directing and senior staff looked in detail at some more specific current and incipient security challenges: ‘Nuclear dangers in the Asia-Pacific’ (this session naturally focusing on the North Korean challenge); ‘New patterns of security cooperation’; ‘Defence implications of emerging technologies’; and ‘Practical measures to avoid conflict at sea’. A total of 16 panellists, including a deputy minister, defence chiefs, senior officials including a national security adviser, and senior analysts from research institutes, made opening remarks which were followed by frank discussions with participating delegates, both governmental and non-governmental.

On the Sunday morning of the Dialogue, Indonesian Minister of Defense General (Retd) Ryamizard Ryacudu, ASEAN Secretary-General Le Luong Minh, and General (Retd) Ricardo A David, Jr, the Philippines’ Under Secretary for Defence Policy, spoke in the fourth plenary session on the theme ‘Finding common ground on regional security’. In the following final plenary, New Zealand’s Minister of Defence, Mark Mitchell, Russian deputy Minister of Defence Lieutenant-General A V Fomin, and Singapore’s Minister for Defence, Dr Ng Eng Hen, discussed ‘Global threats and regional security’.


Since the IISS established the Shangri-La Dialogue, the pressures on the time and attention of defence ministers, military chiefs and the most senior national security officials in the Asia-Pacific region have increased, partly because the substantive challenges to national and regional security have become more complex and demanding, but also as a result of the inauguration of other high-level regional defence forums. These include the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting (ADMM), its offshoot, the ADMM-Plus – involving the defence establishments of eight ASEAN dialogue partners, as well as those of the ASEAN member-states – and the growing number of security conferences in the region that are intended to serve essentially national objectives: these include the Xiangshan Forum organised by China’s PLA, the Seoul Defense Dialogue and India’s Raisina Dialogue. It is striking, though, that governments have maintained – and in many cases strengthened – their involvement in the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, which has become institutionalised as a recurrent fixture in the diaries of the Asia-Pacific’s defence ministers and other principals.

Such has been the regional and international appeal of the Shangri-La Dialogue that total delegate numbers increased from around 160 in 2002 to 250 in 2006, 330 in 2010, 364 in 2013, 451 in 2014, 490 in 2015, and a remarkable 602 (45% of whom represented governments and armed forces) in 2016. These rising delegate numbers resulted from sustained efforts by the IISS to increase participation by senior officials concerned with security matters in foreign ministries and national security secretariats, and to expand the numbers of female, media and business delegates. However, having come to the view that the increasing size of the delegate cohort possibly threatened to impinge on the manageability of the event, in 2017 the IISS invited fewer delegates and took even greater care than previously in selecting them. As a result, there was a total of 487 delegates at the most recent Dialogue, 48% of them from governments and armed forces.

Even at the first Shangri-La Dialogue in 2002, the defence establishments of many Asia-Pacific countries were represented at a high level, with defence ministers, deputy ministers or close equivalents participating on behalf of 14 countries. In 2017, of the 28 regular participant countries represented at the Dialogue, 17 sent delegations led by full ministers or, in several cases, their deputies; six others were led by permanent secretaries or armed forces chiefs. As IISS Director-General and Chief Executive Dr John Chipman noted in his remarks before the keynote address, ‘heavily-charged’ domestic agendas had kept some defence ministers – including those from Germany, India, the Philippines and the United Kingdom (UK) – ‘busy at home’. Thirteen other countries from Europe, the Middle East, Latin America and the South Pacific also sent delegations at the invitation of the IISS, and two of these were led by full ministers. The countries represented at full ministerial or equivalent level were: Australia, Canada, Fiji, France, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Republic of Korea, Singapore, Switzerland, Timor-Leste, Ukraine and the US. As keynote speaker, Australia’s prime minister led a strong delegation that also included his country’s defence minister, chief of defence force, acting secretary of defence, secretary of foreign affairs and trade, and the current and designate commanders of the Malaysian-based five-power Integrated Area Defence System. Deputy ministers, high-ranking defence officials or chiefs of defence led the delegations from the following regular participant countries: Bangladesh, Brunei, Cambodia, China, Germany, Laos, Mongolia, Myanmar, Pakistan, the Philippines, Russia, Sri Lanka, Thailand, the UK and Vietnam. Senior officials also represented or, in some cases, led delegations from Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Saudi Arabia, Sweden, Tonga, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates. ASEAN, the European Union (EU) and NATO also sent high-level delegations. The IISS was particularly pleased that the ASEAN delegation was represented by its Secretary-General, who spoke in plenary.

Lt General He Lei, Vice President, Academy of Military Science, PLA and Fleur de Villiers, Chair of the Trustees, IISS

As is always the case, there was intense interest among other participating governments, the expert community and the media regarding the level of participation by China. In keeping with China’s international status, in 2011 General Liang Guanglie, then-minister of national defence, led the PLA delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue and was the sole speaker in a plenary session. Regrettably, China has not subsequently been represented at the same, appropriate level. While the PLA emphasised its continuing recognition of the importance of the Dialogue and its wish to continue benefiting from the opportunity to explain China’s defence policy there, in 2016 Beijing’s representation was (as in 2014 and 2015) at the deputy-chief level, with Admiral Sun Jianguo leading the PLA delegation. In 2017, as Dr Chipman noted in his remarks at the Dialogue’s opening dinner, the PLA was in the midst of ‘the most intense and wide-ranging military reform process in its long history’. Chipman mentioned his ‘excellent meetings’ in Beijing with senior PLA officers in April and May, when they had told him that their preoccupation with the reform process meant that they could not send a delegation leader of sufficiently high rank and status to speak in plenary at the Dialogue. For that reason, in 2017 the Chinese delegation – which was led by Lieutenant-General He Lei, Vice-President of the Academy of Military Science – expressed China’s positions through speaking roles in special sessions and interventions in plenary question-and-answer sessions. However, Chipman also noted that the PLA had told him that ‘they fully intend in 2018 to send … a delegation led by a four-staff officer of [Central Military Commission] rank’.

Certain key participant countries, including Australia, Indonesia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, New Zealand, the UK, the US and, of course, Singapore – the host state – have since the Dialogue’s early years sent strong delegations usually led by full ministers or their equivalents. Other governments have strengthened their contingents over time. In 2017, it was notable that Canada, France, Indonesia, Switzerland, Thailand and Timor-Leste all contributed impressively strong government and military delegations. The interest of European governments in the Dialogue has continued to grow and in 2017 Switzerland – listed as a participating country in its own right for the first time – sent a strong delegation led by its Minister of Defence. Other high-level European delegates invited by the IISS included Ukraine’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Sweden’s Chief of Defence Staff, while Turkey was represented by a delegation of senior defence officials. The IISS will continue to encourage governments not represented at full ministerial level in 2017 to send stronger delegations to the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2018 and beyond.

Cirilo José Cristóvão, Minister of Defence, Timor-Leste and Marillyn Hewson, Chief Executive Officer, Lockheed Martin

The importance of the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue for the defence and security establishments of Asia-Pacific governments and interested extra-regional powers has been clear from the continued participation of certain national delegations despite domestic political upheavals. In 2015, the UK’s Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Fallon, spoke at the Dialogue although the new British government had been formed less than three weeks earlier. In 2016, Fallon again led the British delegation, despite the imminence of the UK’s crucial referendum on continued membership of the EU. In 2017, French defence minister Sylvie Goulard spoke at the Dialogue despite having been appointed to her role only slightly more than two weeks previously.

The Shangri-La Dialogue has consistently provided a platform from which participant countries’ defence ministers and other principals have clarified and elaborated their countries’ positions on the most important regional security topics of the day. However, the Dialogue has also been a unique venue for proposing and advancing defence initiatives in spheres as diverse as maritime security cooperation against piracy in the Malacca Strait, the strategic and safety implications of regional states’ growing submarine capabilities, the regional proliferation of small arms and light weapons, the structure of the regional security architecture, the idea of a ‘no first use of force’ agreement in the South China Sea, and the enhancement of regional states’ maritime surveillance and intelligence-sharing capacities. In 2017, Singapore’s defence minister, Dr Ng Eng Hen, unveiled a series of initiatives that the city-state planned to pursue during its chairmanship of the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting in 2018: a maritime exercise involving ASEAN members and China; the expansion of the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea to all 18 members of the ADMM-Plus grouping; and the establishment of guidelines for encounters between ASEAN member-states’ military aircraft.

Defence establishments in the region have increasingly found benefit in using the Shangri-La Dialogue as a venue for private bilateral, trilateral and multilateral meetings. In 2017, the IISS was – as in the previous year – aware of almost 90 such meetings in the Shangri-La Hotel, but recognised that there were almost certainly many other meetings on the sidelines of the Dialogue of which it did not have a record. The detailed content of such meetings is, naturally, usually confidential. Nevertheless, governments have sometimes divulged details of their substance in public statements. In 2017, for example, Singapore’s defence ministry revealed that the ministerial roundtable that Dr Ng hosted on Saturday 3 June had involved 22 of his counterparts or their representatives. Points agreed by the ministers included the need for greater regional and international cooperation to prevent terrorists linked to the Islamic State from gaining a foothold in the region; that the United States’ continued engagement in the region was welcome; the importance of ‘healthy and constructive’ relations between China and the US; and that North Korea’s provocations had grave implications for regional peace and stability. An important innovation at the Dialogue in 2017 was the informal meeting between the US Secretary of Defense and his ten Southeast Asian counterparts from Southeast Asia.


The IISS Shangri-La Dialogue has remained above all a ‘track one’ intergovernmental meeting. Nevertheless, from the first Dialogue onwards participation by non-governmental delegates has animated and enriched the proceedings, particularly through the questions that such delegates pose to ministerial and other speakers in plenary and special sessions. In 2017, the IISS sought to alter the balance of the non-governmental delegate cohort, placing special emphasis on ensuring a strong Southeast Asian Young Leaders’ Programme (SEAYLP), even as the overall number of non-governmental delegates was reduced. A separate chapter in this report provides comprehensive details of the highly successful 2017 SEAYLP.

In 2017, the IISS also emphasised the need for a strong cohort of media delegates, including expert bloggers on regional defence and security as well as respected newspaper columnists, in the interest of again ensuring strong, international coverage of the Dialogue. There was again a diverse selection of private-sector delegates. The IISS will in the future seek more actively than ever each year to replenish the ranks of non-governmental delegates, and to increase their diversity, with the aim of further expanding awareness of the Shangri-La Dialogue in the wider expert community.

Harjit Singh Sajjan, Minister of National Defence, Canada and Mark Mitchell, Minister of Defence, New Zealand General (Retd) James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, United States; Marise Payne, Minister of Defence, Australia and Malcolm Turnbull, Prime Minister of Australia

Since the first Shangri-La Dialogue in 2002, to which then-senator Chuck Hagel led a strong, bipartisan US Congressional Delegation (CODEL), the IISS has encouraged participation by legislators with strong defence, security and foreign-affairs interests and expertise. In 2017, there was a particularly strong CODEL comprising three senators and eight members of the House of Representatives. Congressman Mac Thornberry, Chairman, of the House Armed Services Committee spoke from the panel in a special session. There were also legislators from Germany, Japan, Malaysia and the UK among the delegates.


In his comments at the end of the 2017 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, Director-General and Chief Executive Dr John Chipman remarked that the IISS was looking forward to an ‘inclusive, rich defence-minister-led Shangri-La Dialogue which will include all the core participants from the ASEAN Regional Forum countries, but will also allow for that flexible participation that is sometimes difficult in formal institutions’.

The 17th IISS Shangri-La Dialogue will be held in Singapore on 1–3 June 2018. In the interim, on 28–30 January 2018 the IISS will organise the sixth IISS Fullerton Forum: The Shangri-La Dialogue Sherpa Meeting, which will convene senior defence officials and military officers from participant countries in advance of the next Dialogue.

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