Monday, 1 Jun 2020

19th Shangri-La Dialogue, scheduled for June, called off due to coronavirus outbreak

SINGAPORE – This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue – a top-level regional security forum hosted by Singapore – will no longer be held from June 5 to 7 as scheduled due to the coronavirus outbreak, The Straits Times has learnt.

The calling off of the forum – according to sources familiar with the matter – comes as countries around the world tighten their borders to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Singapore took the unprecedented step of not allowing short-term visitors to enter or transit through the country from Monday (March 23), in a move to reduce the risk of importing Covid-19 cases.

The authorities also announced on Tuesday (March 24) that all events and mass gatherings, such as conferences, festivals, and sporting events, must be deferred or cancelled until at least April 30, regardless of size. Previously, they were to be limited to fewer than 250 participants.

This marks the first time that the annual Shangri-La Dialogue has been called off since it was first launched in 2002. It is usually held in June at the Shangri-La Hotel.

This year would have been the 19th edition of the talks organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS).

The forum gathers top defence officials from around the world to discuss security issues affecting the region, such as maritime security and regional stability.

Bilateral meetings and courtesy calls usually take place on its sidelines, and it is credited for building confidence and fostering practical cooperation among its participants.

Last year’s event had involved 33 ministerial-level delegates, more than 30 chiefs of defence force and senior defence officials, and academics from 47 countries.

Among them were then-US acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, as well as representatives from the United Kingdom, Australia, Malaysia, and South Korea.

In response to ST’s queries, IISS said it was working closely with Singapore’s Ministry of Defence, and expects to issue a formal statement towards the end of the week.

Mr David Boey, a member of the Ministry of Defence’s Advisory Council on Community Relations in Defence, told ST that the meeting would be untenable as it is uncertain how long countries will close their borders in response to the rapidly evolving Covid-19 situation.

Even if delegates can get to Singapore when airline flights have dried up, defence ministers and armed forces chiefs are likely to be heavily engaged in their home nation’s efforts to fight the virus, he added.

Mr Boey also noted that event highlights such as courtesy calls and close mingling between delegates cannot take place as before during this period of social distancing.

“As the absence of such activities would dilute the value of the security talks, it is understandable and prudent for the event to be postponed.”

He noted that issues such as the South China Sea, sea piracy, and the threat of terrorism remain pertinent even as the coronavirus outbreak continues.

“It is important for… efforts such as the Shangri-La Dialogue to stay active, perhaps by video conference or online workshops on topical security issues, to keep potential flashpoints in check.”

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