The presence of Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar at the 15th edition of the Shangri La Dialogue (SLD), conducted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) in Singapore last weekend was an underwhelming affair. But perhaps that was by design. The last Indian defense minister to attend the Shangri La Dialogues was Arackaparambil Kurien Antony in 2012.
Parrikar, unusually in his black bandgala (his rare concession to sartorial compulsions), allowed himself to be escorted to a series of bilateral meetings on the sidelines of the conference, always appearing with his trademark mild amusement, perhaps at the prospect of having to squeeze into the common elevators after crisscrossing the lobby to go from one end of the hotel to another.
He was like any other defense minister at the Shangri La Hotel, in that respect, with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter doing the same.
The assembly of uniforms of all sorts and allegiances at what was a slightly confused event was a rare opportunity for folks to chat without the encumbrances that come with official meetings. And so, Senator John McCain of Arizona sitting in the lobby coffee shop rose to say hello to a Vietnamese armed forces delegation as they came over to greet him.
While virtually all other defense ministers spoke to the press after one meeting or the other, our man had nothing to say each time, except during the joint statement with the Singapore Defense Minister Dr. Ng Eng Hen on the first day of SLD 2016.
Except that the presence of the Indian defense minister at the Shangri La Dialogue made an impression, at a time when the South China Sea was on everyone’s minds. Also at around the time, when the Indian Navy had embarked on a deployment to the east, exercising the freedom to navigate the South China Sea.
A supplementary thought that preyed on the minds of many at SLD16 was ‘What if Trump becomes president?’ Will the U.S. Navy no longer be around to keep Chinese transgressions in check? Would they be better off accepting a Chinese peace?