The Shangri-La Dialogue: Ensuring Singapore’s Relevance in Defence Diplomacy


Individuals are not the only victims of COVID-19 – most events, including diplomatic ones, have also been affected. Among them stands the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), cancelled for the first time since its inception in 2002,[1] as it would be a “significant challenge” to organise. As it is a mechanism for effective multilateralism and maintenance of Singapore’s relevance to the Asia-Pacific security realm, it is imperative we find a way to successfully and safely organise the SLD in 2021.


Role of the SLD in the regional security architecture

Dubbed Asia’s premier defence summit, the SLD gathers military and defence representatives from over 40 countries to discuss topical security issues as determined by its convenors: the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). This discussion occurs in the forms of public sessions and bi/mini-lateral meetings on the sidelines, with the former involving invited members of the Track 2 community (non-governmental and unofficial, e.g. academics, think tanks, media, etc.), a particular niche of the SLD.[2] Each part of the Dialogue has its purpose – public sessions enable signalling of commitment,[3] announcement of policies,[4] analysis of the regional security climate,[5] and questioning – even “interrogation” of officials by non-government participants.[6] Closed-door meetings where “genuine statecraft is transacted”[7] enable more sensitive, official diplomatic conversations, conveniently congregated in one place and time. Even the inter-sessional breaks and meals serve the purpose of networking and building of personal relationships, along with a “certain degree of camaraderie” that enables “civility if not trust” in the discussions that follow.[8]

The high comfort level many officials have with their SLD participation[9] can also be attributed to the SLD’s unique position being convened by the IISS rather than a government. This frees the SLD from the “institutional and normative constraints inherent” to multilateral institutions such as ASEAN that may impede meaningful discussion,[10] and from the fears of diplomatic blowback that may be faced if it were convened by a government, should a foreign minister have a negative experience. Additionally, unlike many other regional dialogues, the SLD does not aspire toward a declaration or joint statement at the conclusion of each year’s talks, removing another layer of pressure ministers may feel to come to a consensus. This allows participants to discuss not only frankly but potentially innovatively, raising ideas and suggestions that may be less entertained in other fora, and developing ideas gradually over the years rather than being pressured into immediate action.[11] Ironically, despite suppositions that the SLD is challenging the “ASEAN way” (consensus-driven, non-confrontational, etc.),[12] it actually seems to have achieved the balance and nuance the “ASEAN way” aspires toward – it can be formal when needed due to ministerial representation, but labelled informal when required because it is externally convened and requires no outcome/declaration.


Why the SLD is important for SG

Singapore and MINDEF/SAF’s continued (expensive) support for the SLD for nearly 2 decades indicates its importance to the country.

The SLD has brought us immense visibility, particularly due to its immense convening power. This reputational bolstering applies even amongst other governments, which consistently laud Singapore for the neutral way we position ourselves,[13] prime for sensitive discussions and interlocutory roles. Of course, the above-mentioned benefits to the region are easily translatable into benefits for Singapore, whose prosperity is partly dependent on the stability and security of the region we are in, and for whom talks are always preferable to political or kinetic conflict.

Interviews with those familiar with the SLD and its past 18 iterations, such as retired diplomat Bilahari Kausikan, have shed light on how the SLD has been a good platform to engage the Western powers interested in the region. While other fora tend to feature a majority of participants from within the region itself, the SLD sees a fairly even mix between participants from Western and Asian states. Especially for those states not directly involved in the ASEAN+ mechanisms, the SLD is a good one-stop-shop for their officials to signal their postures towards the region, meet with counterparts, and gain a sense of regional developments. This engagement helps ensure that the regional security concept does not become China’s ideal of “Asia for Asians,”[14] which is a “very dangerous concept for a small country.”[15] Singapore has an interest in engaging great and middle powers external to the region to be a check on the regional hegemon and help uphold a rules-based order.[16]


Consequences of a cancelled SLD 2020

Logistical and organisational challenges aside, COVID-19 has also turned countries inward. With governments prioritising restoration of “their ravaged national economies” in the near future,[17] the closure of national borders has also seen global leadership “retreating behind national walls.”[18] Even without the pandemic, multilateralism was already “under a lot of pressure,”[19] even “a bit of a dirty word.”[20] With existing international institutions often found to be lacking for today’s global governance challenges[21] and the uncertainty of a changing world order,[22] it seems commonsensical for multilateralism to be the method of choice to tackle transnational challenges like climate change and pandemics. However, with the limited existence of binding treaties and key states even pulling out of existing ones, multilateralism does appear to be under strain.

The resultant security challenges are numerous, as “Asia’s web of defense ties falls prey to coronavirus.”[23] Reduced coordination degrades military readiness, limits diplomats, increases the risk of unintended skirmishes, and could worsen “already frayed” relationships.[24][25] As states and partnerships appear decreasingly able to tackle security issues, and imbalances grow as countries vary in COVID-19 response effectiveness, said issues remain ever-present and even more severe amidst the pandemic.

The SLD continues to be needed to facilitate discourse on numerous significant concerns. In March, North Korea resumed missile testing, a perennial dialogue topic.[26] China’s interactions with the region have also been of concern, being viewed as taking “advantage of regional states’ preoccupation with the coronavirus to increase its coercive efforts in contested territories, while engaging in a protracted cyber offensive against Australia.”[27] Without SLD 2020, perhaps China had one less forum to address tensions through talk rather than action; similarly, the world lost an opportunity to gauge the Chinese perspective. It would also be a neutral occasion without any special arrangement required on either side for US-China military talks to resume, offering a potential inlet into preventing escalation or skirmishes in hotspots such as the South China Sea.[28] Additionally, a new US-Mekong partnership (a multi-front cooperation between the US and several mainland Southeast Asian states) was recently announced,[29] a topic previously identified by some regional thinkers as equally worthy of attention at security fora.[30] With the ambit of ‘security’ constantly expanding, pandemic response has just been added onto a growing list of concerns that both affect security directly, and could also divert national resources away from more traditional security concerns. All the more, states should come together in multilateral dialogue and cooperation to maximise efficiencies, particularly for such transnational challenges.

The IISS (as official convenors) undoubtedly desires the successful resumption of the SLD; however, Singapore’s reputation is inextricably tied to it as well.[31] A well-run, COVID-friendly version that still captures substantial content would bolster the reputations of both the IISS and Singapore, while keeping the SLD as an institution not just relevant to the region and those interested, but also at the leading edge of multilateral efforts in this complicated age. Conversely, a poorly-run or lacklustre event could lead to criticisms for both IISS and Singapore. Indeed, the IISS has promised an “exceptionally strong” SLD 2021,[32] which would not only demonstrate Singapore’s recovery and resilience amidst COVID-19, but also remind the region of Singapore as an enabler of effective multilateralism.


The way ahead

It remains difficult to imagine what SLD 2021 would look like, given the prolonging of the COVID-19 crisis. With larger-scale live events being trialled in Singapore,[33] a model for how to convene a safe SLD could be refined over the next 7 months (further bolstering our international reputation). While Singaporean officials continue to engage foreign counterparts over video conference, there is undoubted value in larger-scale, semi-official, topic-based discussion in addition to maintaining friendly relations.

There are precedents for virtual conferencing, including virtual meetings between the officials of APEC, NATO’s foreign ministers, and defence ministers.[34][35] However, the challenge for the SLD to retain its unique contributions to the regional security architecture remains – it cannot just be a series of speeches made by officials. The G20 teleconference faced criticism for how “everybody gave a 10-minute speech and went home”, giving “no sense that they’re working together”[36] – and that would only be the beginning of a virtual SLD’s potential shortfalls. The IISS faces challenges such as retaining the subtleties and nuances of face-to-face interaction particularly on the sidelines, accommodating time zones, managing technicalities of conference rooms, and even determining details such as justifying and allocating the participant list. The IISS is heavily invested in making sure the SLD is “inclusive,”[37] and no doubt will contend with varying levels of commitment to such a Dialogue due to differentials in domestic situations and COVID responses. This is even before considering the unique Track 1.5 nature of the SLD, and the possibilities and organisational challenges that come with virtual inclusion of non-officials to provide as robust a discussion as possible.

At the same time, officials must recognise the limitations of teleconferencing (and conversely, the benefits of building up networks, camaraderie, and unofficial agreements in person). While logistically convenient, a digital SLD may only be sensible in the short-term to protect future dialogues from uneven attendance and therefore representation, jeopardising its inclusiveness. There is a balance to be found in placing enough importance in the various components of the Dialogue, beyond just the convening of ministers and officials, to enable even a close approximation to be successfully organised.

One can remain optimistic that the pandemic situation will calm down sufficiently for a large event such as this to be mounted with the appropriate testing and safety measures. But planning for an alternative should be (and likely is) underway to ensure the region continues to reap the benefits of the SLD, and perhaps more importantly, avoid the pitfalls a lack of effective multilateralism could bring. For now, an alternative SLD would continue to centre Singapore as a committed and capable hub for multilateralism, in a time when the region needs it most.


Jina Lim is a generalist, having graduated with a Masters in Global Affairs from the Schwarzman Scholars Program at Tsinghua University and a Bachelors of Arts and Sciences from University College London. She is now proudly serving as a Naval Officer with the Republic of Singapore Navy. The contents of this article are adapted from Jina’s Master’s thesis research, which can be found here.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article have no relation to experiences in or the opinions of the Singapore Armed Forces.



[1] Lim, Min Zhang. “19th Shangri-La Dialogue, scheduled for June, called off due to coronavirus outbreak”. The Straits Times (27 Mar 2020). Available at:

[2] Liu Zhen. “What is the Shangri-La Dialogue and why is it so important?”. South China Morning Post (3 Jun 2016). Available at:

[3] Liu Lin 刘琳. “Xiang ge li la duihua: “shengyan beihou de boyi” “香格里拉对话:“盛宴” 背后的博弈” [The Shangri-La Dialogue: The game behind the “banquet”]. Shijie Zhishi 世界知识, 13 (2017), 31-33. P33.

[4] Parly, Florence. “SLD 2019 Third Plenary Speech” (1 Jun 2019). Available at:—florence-parly-minister-of-the-armed-forces-france.pdf.

[5] He Lei 何雷. “Xiang ge li la duihua huishang de “douzheng” yu “woshou” “香格里拉对话会上的 ‘斗争’ 与 ‘握手’” [The “conflicts” and “handshakes” at the Shangri-La Dialogue]. Junshi shilin 军事史林, 6 (2019), P5.

[6] Interviews with Dr. Lynn Kuok, Dr. Joseph Liow, and an SLD insider.

[7] Medcalf, Rory. “Shangri-La Dialogue: Hints of Stormy Weather Ahead”. The Diplomat (4 Jun 2013). Available at:

[8] Interview with Dr. Lynn Kuok

[9] Interview with Shivshankar Menon

[10] Zimmerman, Erin Catherine. “Think tanks and the promotion of non-traditional security in Asia: an examination of ideational influence on Asian security governance.” PhD diss., 2013. P153.

[11] Interview with Shivshankar Menon.

[12] Zhou Shi Xin 周士新. “Xiang ge li la duihua de yanjin yu qianjing” “香格里拉对话的演进与前景” [Evolution and Prospects of the Shangri-La Dialogue]. Dongnanya nanya yanjiu 东南亚南亚研究, 3 (2012), 1-5.

[13] Khong Yuen Foong. “Singapore and the Great Powers”. World Scientific (Date unknown). Available at:

[14] Cai Peng Hong 蔡鹏鸿. (2016). “Xiang ge li la duihuahui fangwu waijiao de shizhi shi shenme?” 香格里拉对话会防务外交的实质是什么? [What is the essence of the Shangri-La Dialogue’s defense diplomacy?]. Dangdai Shijie 当代世界, (7), 35-38. P38.

[15] Interview with Bilahari Kausikan

[16] Lemahieu, Hervé. “How the middle powers are determining Asia’s power balance”. BRINK (13 Oct 2019). Available at:

[17] Chen, Dingding. “Why a US-China Détente Is Coming in 2021: The COVID-19 Factor and the Turn Inward”. The Diplomat (19 Jun 2020). Available at:

[18] Ekmanis, Indra. “Is coronavirus reshuffling the global power deck?”. The World (1 Apr 2020). Available at:

[19] Li, Qingqing and Rosellini, Nicholas. “Multilateral forums need to be relevant again”. Global Times (4 Dec 2019). Available at:

[20] Ekmanis, Indra. “Is coronavirus reshuffling the global power deck?”. The World (1 Apr 2020). Available at:

[21] Narlikar, A., 2020. The Malaise of Multilateralism and how to manage it. World Economic Forum (20 Jan 2020). Available at:

[22] Acharya, A. and Plesch, D., 2020. The United Nations: Managing and Reshaping a Changing World Order. Global Governance: A Review of Multilateralism and International Organizations, 26(2), pp.221-235.

[23] Defence Aviation Post. “Asia’s web of defense ties falls prey to coronavirus”. (24 Mar 2020). Available at:

[24] Fuchs, Michael and Lee, Haneul. “3 ways the new coronavirus is a stress test for regional security and politics in Asia”. Center for American Progress (6 Mar 2020). Available at:

[25] Kim, Jiyoon., Yu, Jihoon. And French, Erik. “How COVID_19 will reshape indo-pacific security”. The Diplomat (24 Jul 2020). Available at:

[26] Fuchs, Michael and Lee, Haneul. “3 ways the new coronavirus is a stress test for regional security and politics in Asia”. Center for American Progress (6 Mar 2020). Available at:

[27] Kim, Jiyoon., Yu, Jihoon. And French, Erik. “How COVID_19 will reshape indo-pacific security”. The Diplomat (24 Jul 2020). Available at:

[28] Zhu Feng in “U.S.-China Maritime Conflict and Dispute Management in the South China Sea” Panel by the National Committee on US China Relations (20 Oct 2020). Available at:

[29] Strangio, Sebastian. “How meaningful is the new US-Mekong partnership?”. The Diplomat (14 Sep 2020). Available at:

[30] Interview with Bilahari Kausikan, Survey response from Dr. Ngeow Chow Bing, and see: Jenne, Nicole. “Managing Territorial Disputes in Southeast Asia: Is There More than the South China Sea?.” Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs 36, no. 3 (2017): 35-61.

[31] Interview with Shivshankar Menon.

[32] See:

[33] See: Kwek, Kimberly. “Singapore to hold first live sports events with fans next Friday”. The Straits Times (24 Oct 2020). Available at:

[34] First Senior Officials’ Meeting. “Regional dialogue during an outbreak”. Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (24 Feb 2020). Available at:

[35] Cristiani, Dario. “How is the coronavirus pandemic changing thinking on security?”. GMF (24 Apr 2020). Available at:

[36] Ekmanis, Indra. “Is coronavirus reshuffling the global power deck?”. The World (1 Apr 2020). Available at:

[37] Interview with Dr. Lynn Kuok


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