Sitting at the big boys’ table
Being a dyed in the wool trade journalist it is not often that you get to feel like you’re at the centre of world events – unless you do happen to come across one of those technologies that you realise possibly could end world hunger/halt climate change/make you incredibly rich.
Nonetheless, very occasionally you do get the chance to at least have a glimpse of what’s going on at the big boys table. That was the case with the Shangri-La Dialogue this year.
I’ve been attending the dialogue for the last couple of years (it helps that the event is held over a weekend in Singapore so I don’t miss too much real work) and there is an unmistakeable whiff of power about the event that makes it fairly addictive.
I’ve often been sitting in the hotel lobby having one of their expensive coffees when a high-powered delegation sweeps past and this year it happened to be Chuck Hagel on his way in to deliver his remarks.
The keynote speech by Japan’s prime minster the night before had already prepared the way for a somewhat more forthright discussion than previous years. Although Abe had fallen short of calling names, it was clear that he had China squarely in his sights.
That morning as Hagel rushed passed I didn’t realise he was on his way to pour petrol on the fire by clearly blaming the Chinese for much of the current territorial tensions in the South and East China seas.
During the course of that Saturday the Chinese delegation became the target for a clearly coordinated strategy by some of the major regional and global powers to apply pressure and try and staunch Beijing’s current spate of adventurism.
That was why as a Brit I was filled with some trepidation when it came time for UK defence minister Phillip Hammond to take the stage and add the weight of one of the former global empires, not to mention one of the permanent members of the UN security council, to the debate.
As usual he didn’t fail to exceed my poor expectations, which was not a good thing. In a pretty wishy-washy speech, Hammond talked about using the British armed forces as an extension of soft power – not exactly combative. He also said that he thought 2015 might be the first year in close to a century when British forces would not be deployed on any counter-insurgency or combat operations – famous last words anyone?
However, I think the nadir of the speech came when he said that the UK government needed to find ways to get value for money from the armed forces when they weren’t deployed on those types of operations. One can only groan at that particular statement and what it says about the present government’s understanding of what the armed forces are there to do.
I’m sure there was a message in there for the British public about austerity and the need to control budgets, but delivering that speech at a forum in Asia at a time of such fraught tensions, I think, only showed a lack of seriousness and sincerity when it comes to being actively involved in the region.
As Asia continues its economic rise, the question is whether the UK can afford to stay so detached from a region where many of its vital interests may come in to play.
As I was sitting in the lobby again the next day watching the various delegations rush to and from bilateral meetings, it was clear that most of them seemed more serious than the UK delegation. But maybe Hammond is just like me and likes to at least get a glimpse of what’s going on at the big boys table, even if he isn’t willing to put on the long trousers.