Think tank snub clouds India-Singapore ties

A view of the venue of the Internatikonal Institute for Strategic Studies’ (IISS) Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. File  

A snub from Singapore’s annual Shangri-La dialogue led to India’s decision to withdraw its delegation led by Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre last week, officials have confirmed to The Hindu.

According to senior officials privy to the decision, organisers of the prestigious conference informed the government that the Indian Minister did not rank as highly as Pakistan’s Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, as “civil military relations in Pakistan are different from those in India.”

Panel presence

Organisers at the International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS), that runs the conference for the Government of Singapore told the Ministry of External Affairs that, as a result, Mr Bhamre, who was filling in for Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, would only be accommodated at a “plenary session” on the last day of the three-day event (June 2-4), and not on one of the main panels as General Hayat was.

“Obviously, we were not going to accept this kind of differentiation between India and Pakistan,” an official told The Hindu. Accordingly, the Indian High Commission in Singapore then informed the Singapore MFA that “under the circumstances”, the delegation from New Delhi was pulling out as the speaking slot confirmed was “not in line with their expectations”.

When asked, the IISS “regretted” the Indian decision, and said the MEA had informed them very late, only a week before the start of the conference that they wanted a “speaking role” for Mr Bhamre. Organisers said they had earlier expected Defence Minister Arun Jaitley to attend the event, since former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had addressed the Dialogue in June 2016.

“Unfortunately, the new Defence Minister — Arun Jaitley, who already held the finance portfolio — was unable to accept our invitation. We understand that this was because of his deep involvement in preparations for the imposition of GST,” Timothy Huxley, Executive director of IISS said in reply to questions from The Hindu.

Consequently India, that has attended 12 of the 16 Dialogues since 2002, had no speaker at the event this year, although Indian High Commissioner to Singapore Jawed Ashraf did attend all sessions of the conference.

Crucial bilateral talks

The Shangri-La Dialogue, funded and hosted by the Singapore government, is a unique “track-one” conference that defence ministers, officials and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific countries, including China and the United States, attend each year.

While speaking at the event is considered important, the Dialogue is known more for the opportunity it gives speakers to meet on the sidelines for bilateral talks. India’s decision to pull out meant missing out on possible meetings with U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, which would have been significant ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. at the end of June, as well as meeting the defence ministers of Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Canada, amongst others who attended this year.

Islamabad unchallenged

India also gave up the chance to make a proper rebuttal of the presentation by Gen. Hayat on the $51 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), a project India calls a violation of its sovereignty.

Speaking at the plenary session titled, ‘New Challenges For Crisis Management In The Asia-Pacific’, the General praised the CPEC and China’s Belt and Road Initiative, saying that they could “help resolve regional disputes”, as most countries in south and central Asia, apart from India, have joined the Chinese project.

Both the MEA and Singapore’s MFA sought to play down the differences over the event, with officials on both sides blaming IISS organisers for the “misunderstanding”. But the event has lent a sour note to traditionally friendly ties between India and Singapore, which had only a week before the Shangri-La Dialogue completed their week-long annual Maritime Bilateral Exercise (SIMBEX-17).

“The Singapore government took responsibility for what they called an ‘oversight’ in the programme, but the damage is done,” said the senior Indian official The Hindu spoke to, adding that a decision to re-engage with subsequent Shangri-La Dialogues would have to be taken at a very senior level in government. “It’s over for now,” the official said.

Meanwhile, IISS officials reportedly flew to Delhi this week to control the damage over the diplomatic faux pas. According to Mr. Huxley, a senior fellow of the Institute is “currently in New Delhi to engage with key stakeholders in the Indian security establishment. He will be working closely with the Indian government to ensure that India is fully represented at next year's SLD.”

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Printable version | Jun 17, 2021 9:14:43 AM |

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