June 9, 2008, RADM. Mike McDevitt

(Click to enlarge) RADM. McDevitt speaks about his experience at the 2008 Shangri-La dialogue as director, Dr. Satu Limaye, of the East-West Center in Washington looks on.

Takeaways from Shangri-La: Developing Effective U.S. Defense and Security Policies in the Asia-Pacific


The Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual meeting of Defense Ministers from the Asia-Pacific region, was held in Singapore from May 30-June 1, 2008. This year’s dialogue held sessions on challenges to regional stability, defense policy-making amid uncertainty, and other specific topics, including climate change, maritime disputes, and counter-terrorism. Rear Admiral (Ret.) Mike McDevitt, Director of the Center for Strategic Studies at the Center for Naval Analyses, attended this year’s dialogue and offered his insights about the discussions in an Asian Security seminar at the East-West Center in Washington on June 9, 2008.


Admiral McDevitt began by stating that the dialogue, now in its seventh year, has gained standing as a forum for serious discussion on regional defense and security issues. This year, 27 countries—including Japan, China, India, France, and the United States—and nearly 300 delegates gathered in Singapore. McDevitt noted the value in bringing defense ministers to speak publicly and respond to questions, a process that is often quite revealing.  Even the Deputy Minister of Defense of Burma took pointed questions and responded to remarks from delegates at the forum.


Commenting on U.S. representation at Shangri-La, McDevitt stated that U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s speech was a comprehensive statement of U.S. strategy toward Asia, and reflected current U.S. thinking on security issues in the region. Secretary Gates described the United States as a “resident power” in the region that will continue to pursue the present three-pronged approach of strategic openness/access in the region, freedom of commerce and navigation, and freedom from regional hegemony. McDevitt also pointed out the balanced tone of Secretary Gates’s speech, which mentioned a preference for strategic dialogues, limited criticism of China, and a U.S. preference for multilateral arrangements insofar as they are not detrimental to the country’s bilateral relations with key regional allies.


McDevitt also commented on the speech of Lt. General Ma Xiaotian, Deputy Chief of Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army. Ma declared that China has made a strategic choice to follow a policy of “peaceful rise.” However, China plans to persist with its military modernization, as it must defend long land borders and even longer coastlines to maintain its territorial integrity. Ma’s speech mentioned multiple social and cultural threats within China—key words referring to Tibet, Falun Gong, and other controversial issues, according to McDevitt—and offered a mixed assessment of developments across the Taiwan Strait. Ma also indicated that China is wary of the “three forces” in the region: military alliances, missile defense, and space exploration.


Three other countries also received mention.  Japan indicated that it has no plan to amend its constitution or to change the interpretation of Article 9, McDevitt noted, while France is increasingly interested in regional economic matters and is pursuing confidence-building measures to that end. The Australian defense minister, Joel Fitzgibbon, indicated that Australia is in the process of publishing new white papers and will reorient its foreign policies to put more stress on multilateral relationships.


Finally, McDevitt noted, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee provided a “wish list” for U.S. strategies toward the region in the next administration.  These included upholding a commitment to globalization, pursuing constructive relations with China and other regional powers, actively cultivating diverse interests in the Asia Pacific—and especially Southeast Asia—and developing a long-term approach to the Middle East.