Spies, backchannels & agency of small countries: Shangri-La Dialogue 2023 sub-plots other than US-China

A busy weekend for all involved.

Tan Min-Wei | June 07, 2023, 03:12 PM

Follow us on Telegram for the latest updates: https://t.me/mothershipsg

There’s a picture of (at the time) Acting Prime Minister Lawrence Wong sitting at the International Institute for Strategic Studies' Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) main table on June 2, next to Australian PM Anthony Albanese. 

On either side them were China’s Minister of National Defense, Li Shangfu, and the United State’s Secretary of Defense, Lloyd Austin. 

Austin and Li had met, if only very briefly, when Austin approached Li and shook his hand prior to dinner, with Li repeating awkwardly “Nice to meet you”. 

But as the Pentagon said afterwards, there was no “substantive exchange”. 

The SLD can bring major players to the table. There were at least 10 ministers of defence, and over the course of the weekend, three prime ministers and one president present at the conference. 

But it can’t force them to talk to each other.

That is the promise and peril of such conferences, and the role Singapore plays in them. 

Airing of grievances

Li and Austin both gave keynote speeches, where they spoke past each other rather than to each other. 

Both said the words expected of them, speaking about preventing conflict, maintaining communication, and mutual trust. 

But both were equally willing to cast shade upon very loudly unnamed “other countries”, whose identities were not in doubts (they blamed each other), for causing chaos and uncertainty in the region. 

A defence conference is clearly not the stage for deep introspection, but one wonder how they will ever expect to speak cordially to each other again, given the strong rhetoric. 

Singapore's own defence minister Ng Eng Hen may have alluded to this tension, saying in his own speech towards the end of the conference:

“Simultaneous conflicts in Europe and Asia would be disastrous and blight the future for an entire generation. As leaders, we must do all we can to avoid this nightmarish scenario.”


One might then be shocked (or maybe not) to discover there are in fact backchannels developed to get around these issues. 

Reuters published an article detailing a “secret conclave” of spy chiefs that met in Singapore around in the background of the SLD. 

The meetings were organised by the Singapore government, and held, discreetly, at a separate venue. 

It was confirmed that the U.S. was taking part, with the presence of Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, who spoke at the SLD.

But perhaps just as important was the participation of China amongst the other countries, as well as India. 

The basic logic of such meeting is not hard to understand. 

In the same way that Austin took the opportunity to meet with Li’s predecessor, Wei Fenghe, at the 2022 SLD, the spy chiefs were meeting on the sidelines of an event they were ostensibly already attending.

Reuters quoted a spokesperson for Singapore’s Ministry of Defense as saying:

“…participants including senior officials from intelligence agencies also take the opportunity to meet their counterparts."

"The Singapore Ministry of Defence may facilitate some of these bilateral or multilateral meetings...Participants have found such meetings held on the sidelines of the (dialogue) beneficial."

They discussed major global events, such as the war in Ukraine; but also included other matters of concern, like transnational crime. 

Reuters was told that the meeting’s tone was not confrontational, but was collaborative and cooperative, at least leaving us with some concrete hope that there is still meaningful communication left. 

A platform to be heard, come what may

The keynote speaker for the opening night of the SLD was Australia’s PM Albanese, who set the tone with an advocacy of multilateralism, as well as a promise regarding the defensive nature of AUKUS. 

Speaking at the conference were officials from Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, the United Kingdom, and Canada, but to name a few. 

Hardly small countries with no voice of their own, but still somewhat at risk of being overawed by the global superpowers. Still, the SLD gave them an opportunity to speak to their concerns.

An example of this was Indonesia’s defence minister Prabowo Subianto, who gave a speech directed towards finding peace in Ukraine, calling for a ceasefire and demilitarised zone, among other things. 

Ukraine’s own defence minister, Oleksii Reznikov called the plan “strange”, saying “it sounded like a Russian plan”. 

“Strange” might be the right word for the plan, because the Jakarta Post reported Indonesia’s president Joko Widodo distancing himself from Prabowo's remarks. 

Widodo, who beat Prabowo in the 2019 general election before offering him the defence role, was quoted by the Jakarta Post as saying: 

"It came from Pak Prabowo. I haven't spoken with him. I will invite him for a meeting today or tomorrow. I will ask for an explanation for what the defence minister has said."


But more than a call for multilateralism and communication, was an effort from what some might class as small countries, to remind others that they had agency. 

Often characterised as being pawns in the games of larger countries, smaller countries such as Timor-Leste and Estonia, whose leaders spoke on the same panel, spoke about their own nations’ individual desire to pursue their own goals and seek their own solutions. 

They also acknowledge that as small nations, that sometimes meant joining with larger conglomerations of nations, in order to do so. 

For Jose Ramos-Horta, president of Timor-Leste, he spoke of his country’s struggles to building a free, democratic nation.

But his nation's future also involved working closely with other nations in the region, especially when it came to joining Asean. 

“Membership in Asean is a strategic goal for us. Asean membership, regional economic integration, peace and inclusive prosperity is not only a foreign policy priority, it is very much a pillar of our national life and agenda.”

In October 2022, Timor-Leste was given in-principle acceptance as the bloc's 11th member, pending achievement of a series of milestones.

In a meeting in December 2022 between Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Ramos-Horta, Singapore said it would provide assistance in building Timor-Leste's capacity.

New Cold War?

But Ramos-Horta also recognised the role that China now played for poorer nations, calling China a “magnet of disillusion with the West”.

He recounted meetings with a Somali diplomat he once knew, who said that when the West lectured his nation on human rights, they used to turn to the USSR. 

As the Cold War ended, they were now “alone”. But with the emergence of China, Ramos-Horta speculated that the diplomat might now say: “We are no longer alone. Now, we go to China”

The Prime Minister of Estonia Kaja Kallas, who attended the SLD as part of an official visit that included opening new offices of the Estonian embassy in Singapore, also spoke at the same panel.

She spoke about those who criticised NATO’s expansion, reminding the audience that it was the choice of the smaller Eastern European countries to join NATO as soon as they could, after what she termed their ‘colonisation’ by the USSR after the second world war. 

On those who referred to that as “escalation”, she hit back: 

“This viewpoint disregards the right of smaller countries to make their own choices about their foreign policy and defence arrangements. It denies their independence and sovereignty.”

It is perhaps the most fitting articulation of the complaint that small, and even middle, powers feel, in a world where superpower competition edges ever closer to boiling point.

Read our Shangri-La Dialogue coverage here:

Top image via @wmdglasgow/Twitter