Initiated in 2002 in response to the clear need for a forum where the Asia-Pacific’s defence ministers could engage in dialogue aimed at building confidence and fostering practical security cooperation, the Asia Security Summit – or IISS Shangri-La Dialogue as it has come to be known – has established itself as a key element of the emerging regional security architecture. It is the most important regular gathering of defence professionals in the region and has become a vital annual fixture in the diaries of Asia-Pacific defence ministers and their civilian and military chiefs of staff. By catering for their specific interests and needs, and by facilitating easy communication and fruitful contact among them, the Shangri-La Dialogue has helped to engender a sense of community among the most important policy-makers in the defence and security establishments of regional states and of major powers with significant stakes in Asia-Pacific security.
The Dialogue’s format, agenda, and cohort of delegates have evolved incrementally. The IISS soon modified the Dialogue’s structure – originally based simply on plenary sessions – to permit several simultaneous break-out groups during one half-day of the summit, allowing in-depth discussion of a greater variety of critical regional security topics. After several years, we established the principle that all speaking slots in plenary sessions and break-out groups would be allocated to ministers, other senior official delegates or distinguished legislators with strong defence credentials.
Because the states of the Asia-Pacific, an extraordinarily large and diverse region encompassing the majority of the world’s population, face an extremely wide range of defence and security challenges, the IISS has intentionally formulated a wide-ranging agenda for the Shangri-La Dialogue each year. But we have also ensured that each year the Dialogue’s agenda has recognised emerging as well as established regional security concerns.
At an early stage, the IISS strengthened official participation in the Shangri-La Dialogue by inviting chiefs of defence staff and permanent heads of defence ministries as well as ministers. Additional states within the region and, in one case, from outside the region were invited to participate. After the 2006 summit, the IISS set itself the target of ensuring participation at the highest level from the very few regional states that had not hitherto sent ministerial-level delegates. The IISS, together with participant states, particularly felt China’s under-representation needed to be rectified. In 2007, long-standing IISS efforts to encourage appropriate Chinese participation bore fruit when Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (with vice-ministerial status) led Beijing’s delegation.
Debate at the Dialogue has become increasingly open and fruitful, and there is tangible evidence that it has advanced substantive cooperation on vital security issues. In the maritime security sphere, for example, discussions at the Dialogue led to a consensus on common principles relating to the roles of littoral states and concerned non-Southeast Asian powers in relation to the Malacca Strait. Over time, official delegations have made increasingly intensive and effective use of the Dialogue as a venue for bilateral and multilateral meetings with security partners. While the precise content of these private meetings has usually remained confidential, they have sometimes resulted in publicised understandings on defence and security cooperation.