While American Defence Secretary Gates took an optimistic line about North Korea and its nuclear programme, a very different tone was struck in the presentations from Fumio Kyuma, the Japanese Defence Minister and Brendan Fraser, the Australian Defence Minister. Secretary Gates had spoken about having the structures and agreements in place to deal with the North Korean problem both the Japanese and Australian delegations were clearly more alarmed about the threat of proliferation in the Asia-Pacific region. There was some discussion (mainly away from the main hall) about whether the Americans, keen for a demonstrable foreign policy success, were purposefully playing down the threat to buy diplomatic time.
The Japanese Minister (Japan has only recently upgraded the post to a full Ministerial one in response to a changing defence posture) said that Japan would continue its policy of neither possessing or producing nuclear weapons nor allowing them into Japan. He was especially concerned about the North Korean capability because of its direct threat and the increased risk of nuclear weapon technology falling into the hands of terrorist groups. For these reasons he vigorously defended Japan’s plans for a missile defence system. It was clear that tensions between Japan and North Korea over human rights and the abduction of Japanese citizens remained at a very high level.
Minister Kyuma was questioned about potential Japanese Constitutional reform which would allow the Japanese military to take part more fully in International operations. While this remains a difficult and controversial subject in Japan, it was difficult not to feel the determination that the Abe Government brings to this subject. It was a position that continues to produce mixed views in the region where Japan’s wartime record is still a subject that provokes much stronger emotions than many in the West (particularly Europe) appreciate.
Brendan Nelson, the Australian Defence Minister, gave a typically robust and analytical speech which focussed on the urgent need to stop nuclear proliferation. There was no need for diplomatic decoding. Like most members of the commendably strong and direct Howard Government his targets were clearly visible. Iran’s nuclear programme was the major concern – "They must fully cooperate with the IAEA and fully comply with UN resolutions." Like Minister Kyuma he was very concerned about North Korea, the security of nuclear technology in general, and the risk of non-state actors acquiring nuclear technology in particular. He said that we had to deny terrorists and their organisations a safe haven, ensure their effective prosecution and stop the money laundering that supports them. This would require a broad sweep approach including effective domestic intelligence, export controls and better international cooperation. It was the sort of broad yet succinct analysis that we would benefit from hearing from the UK Government, where much of the energy is focussed on specific measures rather than where they fit into the bigger picture.
I raised the issue on the conference floor about how the North Korean picture might affect the developing situation in Iran. I said that there are two things we need to take into account. The first is that our approach and resolve will be watched throughout the world and any sign of weakness will be seized upon by those hostile to our interests. Secondly, it would be dangerous if any state considering the development of nuclear weapons were to come to the conclusion that whatever the short term price of developing them, the ultimate rewards made it worthwhile. If we allow membership of the "nuclear club" to result in such countries being treated with greater respect and credibility in the International Community we are asking for trouble. I wondered whether Iran might look at North Korea which was isolated while it threatened to develop nuclear weapons (particularly by the US) but then, on testing a weapon, had talks with the US and received concessions and compromise from the very powers who had earlier spurned them. However much of a distortion (or not) there may be in this analysis would not a regime like the Iranians draw their own inevitable conclusions. There was a general view that there were both similarities and differences in the two situations but there was real concern about how the Iranian situation might develop. Secretary Gates, had already pointed out that South East Asian countries would also be threatened by Iran as it had increasingly long range missiles. More urgently they would have to consider the risk of nuclear technology spreading to terror organisations given Iran’s record of supporting such organisations overseas. Given our own experience of Iran arming those set on killing our own troops in Iraq and Afghanistan we should need no persuasion on this risk.
Away from the conference hall, a great deal of time at the conference is spent in bilateral meetings. There is not much that an opposition can actually do (rather than say) but we can profitably spend time learning and building up the relationships we would need to use in government. I was very fortunate and honoured to have bilaterals with Lt.General Zhang Qinsheng, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA. He is the highest ranking Chinese official to attend the Singapore summit so far and we discussed counter terrorism, regional inter-governmental relations and energy security.
I also met with the German Defence Minister, Franz Josef Jung, where we discussed Conservative ideas for NATO reform as well as Afghanistan. It was a constructive but frank meeting which we will hopefully follow up soon.
With Brendan Fraser from Australia (also a former medical doctor) we discussed Afghanistan and the wider issues of international defence cooperation and energy security.
The Sri Lankan Foreign Minister, Mr. Bogollagama, talked at our meeting about how terrorist networks imitate and learn from one another. The operations of Al Queda and the Tamil Tigers show many similarities. Having been involved in the beginning of the current peace moves myself in 1996/7 it is a savage, wasteful war that I follow from afar and I restated the view that democracy needs to triumph over terror and that aggression, violence and assassination should not be rewarded. It is a situation that the Blair Government has shown very little interest in.
Overall, a very worthwhile gathering which John Chipman and his colleagues at IISS should be very proud of. As, I said, we cannot do much in opposition but we can properly prepare so that we will know what to do when we get to Government. That, in itself, would be huge improvement on New Labour.