The opening speech was given by the Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Hsein Loong. He praised the US commitment to the region and was reassuring about China (more an economic threat to the powers in the region than a military threat). He welcomed improved relations between China and Japan (Prime Minister Abe’s attendance at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldiers rather than the Yasakuni Shrine was appreciated in Bejing) but tensions remain especially over Japan’s attitude to the history of WW2.
The Prime Minister praised developments in India but warned that India "would not allow itself to be a counter balance to China" in the region and that "India will not be a deputy sheriff to the US".
He identified a number of potential threats to regional stability: The protectionist noises coming out of the US Congress, especially in relation to China, were unhelpful. Taiwan remains a potential flash point, especially with elections coming up next year. The unresolved Middle East problems had ripple effects in many countries but he warned that a premature US withdrawal from Iraq would embolden Jihadists (This was a theme taken up by others over dinner who also warned that such a move might leave questions in the minds of those Allies involved in Afghanistan about the resolve of the West, something little discussed in the UK media). He was also convinced that climate change would have a major effect, not least because it would mean lower economic growth one way or another. As economic success provided the legitimacy of some South East Asian states, this could be destabilising.
He had a couple of warnings which I thought worthy of comment. The first regarded Iran – "If Iran presses its claims too hard there will be a furious response from the Sunni countries" is a view that William Hague will no doubt want to pursue in more detail although the PM counterbalanced it with "if Iran is not part of the solution it will be part of the problem".
The second was a criticism of Europe which I took to mean the EU. It echoed a view that many of us have had for a long time. He said, to widespread approval, that "Europe needs to be outward looking and stop being obsessed with internal issues such as the constitution" and that "Europe needs to take a more strategic view (in the region) in the same way as the United States does". What a pity there were not more EU politicians present to hear it.
Perhaps the most widely anticipated speech was that by the US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates. Many were interested to hear how it would compare with the speech given last year by his predecessor Donald Rumsfeld. Secretary Gates, in the event, took a conciliatory and constructive tone, praising America’s bilateral links with India, Japan and Korea before going on to discuss how improved multilateral cooperation was required in areas such as the availability of weapons to Jihadists. He reaffirmed the US commitment to NPT (obviously with North Korea and Iran in mind) and was strong in defending America’s missile defence strategy. Maritime transport security and non-military threats, such as a potential bird flu pandemic, were also given prominence as was counter-terrorism. There was a strong emphasis on America’s Pacific identity (something too readily overlooked or forgotten by Europeans) when he said "We are an Asian power with significant and long term political, economic and security interests. Our commitment elsewhere notwithstanding, we will fulfill our commitments in Asia".
Those who still take a Euro-centric view of the world might like to take this in the context of the Singapore PM’s comments above. I thought the most powerful passage came in a forceful defence of what was being done in Afghanistan and the need for greater international effort. He challenged the whole international community to help with infrastructure and institution building and said that the work already done by NATO should not be allowed to "slip away". Particular criticism was reserved for NATO countries whose lack of resolve and limitations placed on their troops restricted their military usefulness (he singled out the UK, Australia, New Zealand and smaller countries such as Estonia and Georgia for praise).
In an interesting change of approach to his predecessor he was very frank, in a long question and answer session, about the lack of regional expertise in Washington. This is a problem that many who have dealt with the US in recent years have complained about, not least the lack of detailed knowledge and linguistic skills in parts of the Middle East. It was, Secretary Gates said, a problem that "has been a long time developing and will take a long time to fix". He went on to talk about the lack of linguistic capabilities and how this was being addressed in the military and intelligence communities. Interestingly, he warned that this problem could not be solved by Government alone and urged businesses to develop the skills they would need to deal with a genuinely global economy.
This ability to balance optimism with warning, being constructive as well as critical went down well. Combined with an open and frank approach to past mistakes it created a very favourable impression among many of those I spoke to afterwards. I found it reassuring, balanced and compelling. And very different to his predecessor.
Part one of Liam Fox’s Singapore diary can be read here.