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India pulls out of Defence Dialogue threatening to sour “friendly ties between India and Singapore”

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Just when the bilateral ties between China and Singapore have become a bit better, another incident has threatened to sour the “friendly ties between India and Singapore”.

This was reported by The Hindu on Sat (10 Jun),’Think tank snub clouds India-Singapore ties’. The Hindu is the second most circulated daily English-language mainstream newspaper in India, with average circulation of some 1.5 million.

It reported that the Indian delegation was pulled out of the recent Shangri-La Dialogue which was held early this month in Singapore over the ranking of Indian Minister. A perceived snub from the organizer of the event led to India’s decision to withdraw its entire delegation led by Indian Minister of State for Defence Subhash Bhamre, reported The Hindu. It has confirmed this with Indian officials.

According to the Indian senior officials privy to the decision, the organizer informed the Indian government that the Indian Minister Subhash Bhamre did not rank as highly as Pakistan’s Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee, General Zubair Mahmood Hayat, as “civil military relations in Pakistan are different from those in India”. As a result, Mr Bhamre who was filling in for Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley, would only be accommodated at a “plenary session” on the last day of the event, and not on one of the main panels as the Pakistani General Hayat was.

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The Shangri-La Dialogue is organized by the non-partisan UK-based International Institute of Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank. The Hindu reported that the event was funded and hosted by the Singapore government. The annual event enables defence ministers, officials and military chiefs of 28 Asia-Pacific countries, including China and the United States, to meet together for bilateral talks. IISS helps run the conference for the Singapore Government.

India’s decision to pull out meant missing out on possible meetings with U.S. Defence Secretary James Mattis, which would have been significant ahead of Indian PM Modi’s visit to the U.S. at the end of June, as well as meeting the defence ministers of Australia, Japan, Malaysia and Canada, amongst others who attended this year.

Mishandling of event lends a sour note to “friendly ties between India and Singapore”

An Indian official told The Hindu, “Obviously, we were not going to accept this kind of differentiation between India and Pakistan.”

Accordingly, the Indian High Commission in Singapore then informed the Singapore Ministry of Foreign Affairs that “under the circumstances”, India was pulling out of the event as the speaking slot confirmed was “not in line with their expectations”.

In a reply to The Hindu, the organizer IISS “regretted” the Indian decision, and said the Indian side had informed them late that Mr Bhamre had wanted to speak. The organizer said they had expected Indian Defence Minister Arun Jaitley to attend the event.

“Unfortunately, the new Defence Minister — Arun Jaitley, who already held the finance portfolio — was unable to accept our invitation. We understand that this was because of his deep involvement in preparations for the imposition of GST,” IISS said in its reply.

However, both India and Singapore sought to play down the differences over the event, with officials on both sides blaming IISS organizer for the “misunderstanding”.

“But the event has lent a sour note to traditionally friendly ties between India and Singapore, which had only a week before the Shangri-La Dialogue completed their week-long annual Maritime Bilateral Exercise,” The Hindu said.

Indian official: Damage done

Singapore MFA also said it is “taking responsibility” over the mishandling of the event although it is unclear what it meant by “taking responsibility”.

“The Singapore government took responsibility for what they called an ‘oversight’ in the programme, but the damage is done,” said the senior Indian official whom The Hindu spoke to.

The official added that a decision to re-engage with subsequent Shangri-La Dialogues would have to be taken at a very senior level in government. “It’s over for now,” the official said. In other words, it is unclear if India will be participating in future Dialogues held in Singapore.

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