SINGAPORE --- For the past two years, the highlight of the annual IISS Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was the keynote speech by the sadly departed former US defence secretary Jim Mattis. This year the task of speaking on behalf of America to the leading forum of Asian defence ministers fell to Mattis’s successor, acting defence secretary Patrick Shanahan. The American was conciliatory towards China, a message that would have been welcome to a region that generally prefers not to have to choose between Washington and Beijing.
But Shanahan doesn’t have Mattis’s authority or backstory, and his delivery was poor too (although he made a good stab at pronouncing the name of the Australian frigate HMAS Toowoomba). Watching on with several Lowy Institute colleagues, I thought it was revealing that Shanahan intervened several times to limit the number of questions put to him by delegates through the IISS director-general John Chipman. It’s always better to show confidence by taking all the questions, as Mattis did – even hard questions put by blunt Australians.
Shanahan wasn’t the only one to miss a note. British Secretary of State for Defence (and possible Tory leadership candidate) Penny Mordaunt was underwhelming later in proceedings. For some reason, perhaps to compliment the Chinese, she characterised the United Kingdom as a “win-win” nation, like Singapore. In fact, the UK’s strategic circumstances and foreign relations are very different from Singapore’s, and the Brits know from centuries of diplomacy that relations between great powers rarely play out on a win-win basis.
In an effort to downplay British bellicosity, Mordaunt compared future British Freedom of Navigation Operations (FONOPS) in disputed Asian waters to a ship visit to Manhattan. The only effect of this comment will be to undercut the impact of future British ship movements on the minds of those in Zhongnanhai. These are the fruits of Brexit.
The best performer on the same panel – indeed the star of the Dialogue – was French defence minister Florence Parly. Parly slayed. She was plain-spoken, tough-minded and funny. It helped that she was accompanied to Singapore by an aircraft carrier strike group: the magnificent Charles de Gaulle, which was berthed at Changi Naval Base over the weekend. Parly had some fun with Mordaunt on this point. Thank goodness for France, I thought at the end of Parly’s speech. True, the French can be frustrating – but they are also magnificently obstinate, to use Parly’s own word. These days, the West sorely needs some obstinacy. (end of excerpt)
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