Sunday, 10 June 2012

By their dialogues we shall know them

Political conferences all have their own character, which also determines their actual value.

ONLY a quarter of a century ago, Malaysia launched the first premier annual conference for the most dynamic part of the world.

Thus was ISIS’ Asia-Pacific Roundtable (APR), organised by the Institute of Strategic and International Studies in Kuala Lumpur. It soon became an institution and a pilgrimage for strategic thinkers, policymakers and analysts with a focus on security in East Asia and the Americas, with Russia, Australasia and the Pacific somewhere in between.

As a non-governmental forum, the APR became the top “Track Two” dialogue for the Asia-Pacific mega-region’s movers and shakers. Because Track One (governmental) forums were official, delegates there would be inhibited and dialogues overburdened with protocol.

Track Two dialogues, however, were non-official and included governmental officials alongside academics and others. With everyone speaking in a private capacity, exchanges tended to be more open and candid.

      Track One: Malaysia’s Defence Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi speaking on the final day of the Institute for Strategic Studies summit in Singapore on June 3. — EPA

This allowed officials the time and space to speak their mind, while giving non-officials an opportunity to “listen in” and address officials directly. The APR series would go on to inspire copies, or at least near-copies.

In 2002, Singapore began its own annual conference series in the Shangri-la Dialogue (SD). This would be a Track One exercise managed by Britain’s Institute of International and Strategic Studies (IISS).

Through the years other Asean countries also established their own national think- tanks, with one from each country forming part of the Asean-ISIS network. The APR then became their joint project, while still being organised by ISIS Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

After the SD, the Swiss-based World Economic Forum (WEF) also turned its gaze eastwards. Apart from the WEF’s annual meetings in Davos, it also began to hold several conferences a year elsewhere, including the annual WEF on East Asia.

The APR is held in late May or early June each year. For both the SD and the WEF on East Asia to be held back-to-back with the 2012 APR testifies to the APR as a form of mainstay. Organisers tend to hold broadly similar forums in a region around the same time to economise on travel expenses for international participants. That the other international conferences adjusted their schedules to suit Asean-ISIS’s timing is a measure of how Asean and its institutions can implicitly drive international events involving major world powers.

While the SD focuses on politics and provides a political platform for delegates, the WEF on East Asia (like other WEF forums) emphasises corporate activity and provides a business platform for delegates. Their similarities and differences with each other and with the APR became obvious this year.

The APR’s agenda this time ranged from regional security with the rise of China and India, to US strategic interests, sub-regional perspectives, governance issues and Myanmar’s future.

There was, as usual, a fair assortment of delegates from various countries around the Asia-Pacific. Someone remarked on how much of the discussion was taken up on China and the implications of its continued rise, but at least the conference could not be accused of skirting the reality outside.

This concerns the key question of how much of the region’s realities are actually reflected in conference discussions. What is their street credibility like?

The SD tended, perhaps typically, to be dominated by Western voices. Much of the time it was US officials in particular talking to their Asian counterparts over everyone else.

US-China military relations or rather the lack of them this time became almost the dominant theme. Attracting most interest was the US view of China’s rise, in particular with the attendance of US Defence Secretary and former CIA director Leon Panetta.

The SD’s strategic focus on China came at a time when Vietnam and the Philippines were experiencing renewed problems with China’s rival claims to South China Sea territory. Perhaps for this reason, several Chinese would-be delegates apparently gave this year’s SD a miss.

This showed that Chinese delegates had yet to prepare themselves sufficiently for vigorous public debates. That would require, for example, adequate mastery of the main language of discourse, English, to engage with others convincingly and persuasively.

With the “China component” virtually absent, there was a complaint that the Shangri-la Dialogue proved to be not much of a dialogue. And since friendly relations across the seas this time were somewhat strained, it wasn’t much of a Shangri-la situation either.

Further north in Bangkok, several important social issues were aired along with the platforms for businesses.

There were the obligatory discussions on China-US or US-China relations, of course. Who could seriously omit such a pivotal issue in the region?

But China was discussed in a variety of ways beyond the flat topic of a military enigma. There was, for example, consideration of how the worsening European debt crisis could hit China and then impact on the rest of the region in myriad ways.

There were also important exchanges on the reform process in Myanmar. However, these were somewhat dwarfed by the presence of Aung San Suu Kyi, on the podium addressing everyone directly in her first trip outside her country in 24 years.

For the first time, delegates could speak with her and relate to the needs of Myanmar and its people. Such was the impact created that the WEF on East Asia decided to hold next year’s conference in Myanmar.

The discussion on how banks must also serve the poor had a showing by the Boston Consulting Group. However, talk of how providing banking access to some 20% of the world’s population still without access could re-energise growth did not arouse much debate on how this might require a whole reconceptualisation of banking priorities.

Discussion on the need for mobile healthcare, particularly for rural areas, saw representations by the Telenor Group and Boston Consulting. While this would clearly maximise the capacity of healthcare professionals, it would also involve a serious re-assessment of private and public sector roles in healthcare funding.

Food security was a main item on the agenda, with the observation that despite increases in food production in the past half century, a billion people are still starving. But again, there was not much debate on how the question is not the amount of food produced but its distribution, as determined by global markets and prices.

As a conference in the heart of the Asean region, surrounded by Asean realities, the WEF could not miss the quickening pace of Asean economic integration and the creation of a common market by 2015. There was no doubt that Asean integration would proceed full-speed in all its intended spheres. In attempting to learn from the EU experience, however, Asean needed to adapt from European successes while avoiding the failures.

Over at the SD in Singapore, the question of how the US could grapple with a looming Chinese presence in the region led to consideration of the US navy’s new intended toy, the super-high-tech destroyer DDG-1000.

At US$3bil (RM9.56bil) each, this would push the navy into the space age and the Defence Department into near-insolvency. Perhaps not surprisingly, there was also little debate on how the greatest threats confronting the US are not other countries but non-state actors like terrorist groups and various militant organisations.

Perhaps some help could come by way of more Track Two dialogues.

Behind The Headlines By Bunn Nagara