By Karen Parrish
American Forces Press Service
SINGAPORE, May 31, 2013 – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel arrived here today for the first Shangri-La Dialogue he will attend as head of the Pentagon, but he helped to build the first such event as a U.S. senator more than a decade ago, he told reporters traveling with him to the annual conference.
“It has developed into a premier and very relevant … institution,” he said about the annual Asia-Pacific security conference. “It becomes more and more important every year, and there is no other event, no other venue, like it.”
Hagel left Hawaii, the first leg of his current trip, yesterday and -- 18 time zones later -- is continuing his schedule here, the home of the Shangri-La Dialogue, named for the hotel in which it’s held.
Back around 2000, Hagel explained, the current director-general for the International Institute for Strategic Studies, John Chipman, approached him to seek his support for a new regional conference focused on Asia-Pacific security issues. Hagel said the gathering was envisioned as comparable to the annual “Wehrkunde” security conference established in 1958, which allowed Western defense ministers to gather in Munich once a year, outside NATO, and address big security issues.
Hagel, then a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helped Chipman get the congressional support he needed. In 2002, Hagel noted, he attended and spoke at the first Shangri-La Dialogue as head of the U.S. congressional delegation, along with U.S. Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, and he also attended and spoke at the next two annual events, though he hasn’t been back since.
“Asia is emerging into this incredible power, with the growth [and] emergence of China, India, Vietnam and other countries, and I was very enthusiastic about the concept,” Hagel said. He added that since the first dialogue, attendance has broadened and deepened to include more nations’ representatives, and more kinds of representatives per nation.
For example, he said, there was little to no Chinese or Russian involvement the first few years of the dialogue, though both nations have since participated regularly, and participants of the early events largely were limited to defense ministers.
“Now, you’ve got Europeans, you’ve got most of the world powers represented,” Hagel noted, and prime ministers, representatives of nongovernmental organizations and other security experts also attend in greater numbers each year.
The secretary will speak at the start of this year’s conference, he said, and will emphasize that while the United States is rebalancing its security strategy, resetting from the longest war in its history and grappling with challenging economic issues, all of those factors converge on this region at this time.
“I expect next year, [that convergence] will be even more pronounced,” he added. “This is an important time.”
Hagel said he put in a great deal of personal effort and sought input from across and beyond government in crafting the speech he’ll deliver at Shangri-La. The secretary added that he also will take part in a number of bilateral and trilateral meetings while in Singapore.
Such meetings don’t allow broad in-depth engagement, Hagel acknowledged, but they allow leaders to share face-to-face focus on certain big issues. “Then, you can usually set something in motion as a follow-up,” he added.
“I have always believed … that these kinds of dialogues, these kinds of venues, are critically important,” the secretary said. He noted that as technology becomes more complex and the planet’s population keeps adding billions, “the world’s not going to get any less complicated.”
According to the online agenda for the conference, cybersecurity, counterpiracy, counterterrorism, freedom of navigation and disaster relief issues are among those scheduled for discussion at Shangri-La.
“We’d better take these moments to start sorting some of this out now,” Hagel said. “[It’s important to] avoid crises, so you won’t find countries in situations that evolve and develop because technology and the astounding rapidity and pace of world affairs result in very limited, if any, margin of error in mistakes.”
After his stop in Singapore, Hagel will travel to Brussels, Belgium, for a gathering of defense ministers from NATO and International Security Assistance Force troop-contributing nations.