SINGAPORE: China has to decide for itself if participating in engagements on an open platform, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, "adds value", said Singapore’s Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen.
Dr Ng was responding to a question by a Chinese military official on Sunday (Jun 12) at the final plenary session of the annual security forum, held at the hotel the annual event is named after.
“Some view the Shangri-la Dialogue as positive thinking. It’s a forum bringing high-ranking officials and scholars from this region to improve communication and exchanges,” said Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior fellow at the Academy of Military Sciences and a representative of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
“But there are negative views: Views (that) the Shangri-la Dialogue, as a forum, (is) dominated by the United States and its allies, serving the interest of the United States and its allies. And also the topics discussed often point to differences, rather than cooperation, and the divergence rather than convergence.
“So my question is, what role over the past years Shangri-la Dialogue has played in Asia Pacific security and how do you view the comments and opinions I have mentioned about?”
In his response, Dr Ng noted the different tenors of such conferences, pointing to his attendance at the Xiangshan Forum, an event organised in China that also deals with Asian security and defence issues.
“Sometimes it's a matter of taste,” he said. “I can imagine that people from the (People’s Liberation Army) come here and find this raucous, a bit rambunctious, (that) this is the Western liberal mode of many ideas, and from this, you're supposed to gain wisdom and they go back and say it was thoroughly discombobulating. That’s entirely understandable.”
But there is also an opposing view, said Dr Ng, who noted that there are people who do not like to attend forums that are “too structured, too predictable”.
“They feel that it’s too scripted,” he said. “That when you say things, the end is already determined … so why not not say it and just send me something and I can read it, rather than travel a few thousand miles to arrive in Singapore?
“For China, it must decide for itself whether the Shangri-La Dialogue adds value. There is no coercion for you to attend.
“Is it better? To come to an open platform, to subject yourself sometimes to a tyranny of questions and to what might seem a common view from others to explain yourself? Or to retreat from that engagement? That is something that China must decide for itself.”
In an interview with the media after the session, Dr Ng was also asked if there was a possibility that China would send lower-ranked delegations in the future, or even stop attending the Shangri-La Dialogue altogether.
“The value really must be, for anyone, is whether they feel at the end of it (that) they're better off than not,” he said.
Referring again to China's Xiangshan Forum which he last attended in 2019, Dr Ng characterised it as “very systematic”.
"It’s useful but I will be honest and I've said so to my host when I go there, sometimes you wish for a little more exchange, because you feel as if something is unsaid or something is said just to be polite, it's a Chinese culture." he said.
"You're just saying it to be courteous, but after you leave my door, you whisper something and then I don't know how you feel."
However, he said the forum has “helped other countries looking onto China understand China a bit more”.
Dr Ng last attended the Xiangshan Forum in 2019.
The Shangri-La Dialogue returned over the weekend after a two-year hiatus.
It was attended by representatives from 42 countries, including 37 ministerial-level delegates and more than 30 senior defence officials.