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Aloysius , Dylan | 26 May 2021

Why diplomatic events like the Shangri-La Dialogue cannot go virtual

In late April, Asean leaders took some health risks by showing up for a face-to-face meeting in Jakarta to discuss the issue of Myanmar, which has been embroiled in political and social unrest since a February coup.

With General Min Aung Hlaing – the man behind the putsch – in attendance, the physical presence of other Asean heads of state was an extraordinary step that spoke volumes in the language of diplomacy, said foreign policy watcher Alan Chong from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

“It’s like saying: ‘Look, if in your household there is a quarrel, we will try to avoid crossing a line by openly intervening in your domestic affairs, but as neighbours, we can’t help but show some concern – with respect’,” he said.

“That’s what an in-person meeting does.”

Dr Chong’s observation offers clues to why some diplomatic meetings, such as the recently-cancelled Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), have resisted going virtual – even as others have adopted video conferencing amid the pandemic.

For instance, two Asean summits last year, in April and October, went ahead in a virtual format. This year, in March, the inaugural meeting of Quad leaders from Australia, India, Japan and the United States also took place online.

In contrast, earlier in May, a visit to Singapore by Malaysian Foreign Minister Hishammuddin Hussein led to the restoration of travel between the two countries on compassionate grounds. Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven also met in person in London from May 3 to 5.

Last Thursday (May 20), the SLD – an annual gathering of top global defence officials that was planned to be held in-person in Singapore – was cancelled for the second year running due to uncertainties caused by the pandemic. The announcement came three days after the World Economic Forum (WEF) also called off plans for an August meeting in Singapore.

Asked why the SLD could not be held virtually, a spokesman for the organiser Рthe International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) Рtold The Straits Times that it had examined a full range of options in consultation with the Singapore Government.

The summit promotes face-to-face diplomacy, said the spokesman, not only in terms of plenary sessions addressed by world leaders and ministers, but also numerous private sideline bilateral and multilateral meetings between high-level delegates.

“The true value of these is not easy to replicate virtually. We look forward to convening an in-person Shangri-La Dialogue in 2022,” she added.

In noting the SLD’s cancellation, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen wrote on Facebook that “face-to-face meetings were necessary for frank and deep conversations” between participants.

Observers ST spoke to agreed, noting that virtual settings cannot substitute for some aspects of diplomatic events, such as spontaneous conversations, building of rapport, and sizing up interlocutors – although they cautioned that every event is different, and it depends on the organisers’ aims.

Robust exchanges

Tricom Events director Dylan Sharma, whose company has been event manager for the SLD since 2012, said one unique feature of the dialogue is the robust question-and-answer portions at each of the plenary sessions – “a distinct characteristic” of its no-holds barred nature.

In past editions of the SLD, the buzz generated in the lead up and on the event days was palpable, he said.

The hotel lobby and other common areas, such as¬†the ballroom, were typically a hotbed of activity and conversation starters. “This is a critical point of meetings such as WEF and SLD, where anticipation and excitement fill the air,” added Mr Sharma.

ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute senior fellow William Choong, who has attended past editions of the dialogue as a IISS senior fellow and as a journalist, penned a commentary in ST on Tuesday (May 25) on the value of an in-person SLD.

He said: “Nothing quite replaces seeing one’s counterpart in the eye and duking it out over disagreements behind closed doors.”

He pointed to numerous instances where the SLD had been the stage for numerous memorable encounters between world leaders.

For instance, when then-US Defence Secretary Robert Gates sparred verbally with Chinese Lieutenant-General Ma Xiaotian at the 2010 dialogue.

Professor Andrew Karl Delios from the National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School said most large event organisers have realised that virtual meetings simply do not work on the same level as in-person ones.

“This lack of effectiveness becomes more pronounced when the depth of issues to be discussed increases in terms of complications or in terms of variance in views, and when the heterogeneity of participants increases,” he said.

Non-verbal cues

Associate Professor Chong Ja Ian from the NUS’s political science department, said that while some events are symbolic and meant for showing up and making a statement, there are others where quiet and candid conversations are more important.

There are also mixed events where both happen, he added, such as the SLD and the WEF.

Prof Chong said: “Informal conversations are important for testing out ideas, sounding out the range of possibilities, getting a sense of your interlocutors, pushing for certain positions – all without having to commit too much if you do not want to do so.

“This is an important social aspect of diplomacy and indeed a lot of deal-making in business.”

Current technology does not allow for such informality, he added. “There is the worry of surveillance and conversations not being as discreet as they ought to be.”

Communication and technology professor Lim Sun Sun from the Singapore University of Technology and Design said casual banter, a warm handshake and a friendly pat on the back can foster feelings of trust and goodwill that hours of Zoom meetings will never replicate.

“By the same token, when discussing contentious issues, face-to-face meetings offer more ways to surmise intent – styles of interaction, body language, paralinguistic cues, which are less palpable online,” she said.

WEF and SLD organisers choosing to cancel their events rather than hosting the events virtually signals their commitment to maintaining that level of intimacy and connection for the long-term, Prof Lim added.

Virtual, or hybrid, here to stay

Mr Aloysius Arlando, president of the Singapore Association of Convention & Exhibition Organisers (Saceos), said that while there are experiences that can never be replicated through virtual events, the potential to reach a wider global audience could make up for the disadvantages.

The jury is still out on the monetisation of virtual and hybrid events, he said.

But importantly, having a physical gathering of world leaders will strengthen and deliver the message and imagery of solidarity – something that is much-needed during this time of unprecedented global crisis, he added.

Prof Chong, from NUS, believes that high-level physical gatherings where people can meet informally will likely still take place in future. “Diplomacy and commerce isn’t just about swiping right, liking, following, or something like that.”