Asia’s largest annual security forum opens today in Singapore with territorial disputes in the South China Sea, North Korea’s military provocations and Islamist extremism expected to dominate discussions.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, organised by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), is to be attended by at least 20 defence ministers led by Pentagon chief Ashton Carter, IISS Asia executive director Tim Huxley said.
Beijing’s claim to nearly the entire South China Sea has angered Southeast Asian neighbours and pitted it against the United States, which has conducted patrols near Chinese-held islands to press for freedom of navigation. The contested waters encompass key global shipping lanes.
The Philippines, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam have competing claims in the area, which is believed to have significant oil and gas deposits.
“There is much speculation about China’s next steps in the South China Sea, particularly in the context of an apparently imminent ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague on a Philippine submission that challenges important aspects of China’s claims and activities there,” Huxley wrote in a pre-conference blog.
Ahead of the conference launch today, Carter and his Singapore counterpart Ng Eng Hen flew over the busy Strait of Malacca in a demonstration flight of a US P-8 maritime patrol plane stationed in Singapore.
“The American approach is an inclusive one in which everyone participates in the collective defence of our peoples from today’s threats,” Carter said at a joint news conference after the brief flight.
“That’s the objective of the US military presence out here, and it’s been that way for decades.”
Carter did not speak out against China, but has previously condemned Beijing’s island building and last week said it risked creating a “Great Wall of self-isolation”.
Tensions in the South China Sea are expected to drive up Asia-Pacific defence spending by nearly 25 per cent from 2015 to USD 533 billion in 2020, security think-tank IHS Jane’s wrote in a research note issued Thursday.
“By 2020, the centre of gravity of the global defence spending landscape is expected to have continued its gradual shift away from the developed economies of Western Europe and North America, and towards emerging markets, particularly in Asia,” said IHS Jane’s director Paul Burton.