As the world’s “centre of gravity” in terms of power and influence moves inexorably toward Asia, a “closer” location for various high-level talks became increasingly desirable.
According to Oh Ei Sun writing for the Global Times, Singapore has come to the fore, with its strategic location, sophisticated and secure meeting facilities, a nuanced foreign policy and in general a pleasant atmosphere for many parties concerned.
The Republic has gained tremendous experience hosting ministerial and even higher-level meetings, the most prominent of which is perhaps the annual Shangri-La Dialogue held since the turn of the century, where many ministers of defence from the region and beyond gather to exchange ideas on strategic issues.
Singapore also hosted the historic meeting between the leaders from both sides of the Taiwan Straits in 2015. The unprecedented event in a sense cemented Singapore’s reputation as the preferred location for such high-level meetings. Singapore’s low-key, unobtrusive and yet diligent and professional “hosting service” during this and other momentous events did not go unnoticed on the global stage.
It thus came as not much of a surprise when it was announced that Singapore would host US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as they hold the first ever summit on June 12 between the two nations technically still at war. The world eagerly awaits the peace deal, if any, that would result from such a summit. Meanwhile, Singapore will continue to play its role as a quiet but assiduous host.
Traditionally, Oh said, the world’s preferred choice for peace talks during times of war and assorted other secret rendezvous is Switzerland, and especially the city of Geneva. Switzerland has been widely considered a “neutral” nation in modern times. It was spared invasion during both World Wars, and has become one of the world’s pre-eminent financial centres with tremendous amount of wealth.
In fact, although hosting the European headquarters of the UN (at Geneva) since the world body’s inception, Switzerland did not become a member state until 2002 and has never joined the EU despite its geographical centrality in the continent. It is perhaps this sort of somewhat strict neutrality verging on the absolute that has attracted many rival parties on the international arena to initiate talks there. Presidents Ronald Reagan of the US and Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union, for example, strolled along the shores of Lake Geneva, discussing dismantling of their vast nuclear arsenals. Both the UN’s Palais des Nations and the Intercontinental Hotel in Geneva also saw their share of open and secret summits.
There have of course been “summit-hosting competitors” to Geneva over the years, most of them other European cities. Paris hosted the Vietnam War peace talks between US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and North Vietnamese leader Le Duc Tho, leading to their being jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Oslo and Madrid were the sites where a quarter century ago the Palestinians and the Israelis instituted talks for resolving the then major Middle East conflict. And more recently Vienna, headquarters of the International Atomic Energy Agency, where the now embattled Iran nuclear deal was forged.
The author is senior adviser on international affairs, Asian Strategy and Leadership Institute, Malaysia.