Shangri-La: Strategic Concerns Never Grow Old


Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service

In 1933 James Hilton, a British novelist published Lost Horizons.  In the novel, he set the scene in a lost valley on the frontier of Tibet, hidden away from the world where everyone was happy and never grew old.  He gave the name Shangri-La to this valley.  Shangri-La was a slight transformation of the more often-used name Shambhala of the Tibetan Buddhists and those in India and China who are in contact with Tibetan traditions.

However Hilton’s novel and a widely viewed Hollywood film made the name Shangri-La popular to the extent that the current Chinese government renamed an area near Tibet Shangri-La.  There is an Asian chain of expensive hotels called Shangri-La.

It is in the Singapore Shangri-La Hotel that since 2002 the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies holds its Shangri-La Dialogue for high-level military and security leaders.  This year 2018, the Dialogue was held 1-3 June and was highlighted by talks by Narendra Modi, Prime Minister of India, and General James Mattis, the US Secretary of Defense.

Dialogue may be the wrong word for the meetings.  Basically people from the 27 countries involved with Asia make a policy presentation, later edited and published by the Strategic Studies Institute.  There may be useful discussions held in private and some clarifications of views set out in more general terms in the public presentations.  It is not clear if everyone in the Shangri-La Dialogue is happy, but there must certainly be a feeling of never growing old because the themes and approaches remain the same year after year even when the participants change.

The preoccupations of the “Quad”: Australia, Japan, India, and the USA, are central.  They are primarily concerned by the policies of China: South China Sea delimitation issues, China-India issues largely limited to frontier disputes, China-North Korea relations, and the status of China-Taiwan relations.  China participates but at a lower level on the administrative power chain.  These past two years it has been Lt. General He Lai, vice-director of the Academy of Military Science of the People’s Liberation Army.  He insists that China is a responsible Great Power and that the Belt and Road Initiative is for the good of all.

The 2018 Dialogue was colored by the possible North Korea-USA Summit also to be held in Singapore, but little was publicly expressed in order not to cloud the on-again, off-again meeting.

There is little discussion of development or trade issues beyond the Quads’ insistence on the right of navigation in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.  International law is mentioned only in the context of the right of navigation and some discussion of the Law of the Sea Treaty which the USA has not signed. Human Rights is the sort of subject that one does not mention in polite company.

One cannot really object to the frozen framework of the security discussions.  One can regret that there are security concerns that are left in the shadows: armed conflicts toward minorities in Myanmar (Burma), long-drawn out tensions between India and Pakistan focused in part on Kashmir, the still unstable condition of Nepal, tensions in Northeast India, the continuing tensions within Sri Lanka.. One can also regret the lack of attention to the relation between development policies, persistent poverty and armed violence.

In the Tibetan myth of Shambhala, known through the Kalachankra texts, those who work with Shambhala, the initiates and the messengers of Shambhala, do not sit in the valley.  They travel everywhere.  Very often people do not recognize them and sometimes they do not recognize each other.

Thus it might be useful for those concerned with conflict resolution, ecologically-sound development and what President Xi Jinping has called the “community of common destiny” to organize the Shambhala Dialogue in a less expensive hotel, perhaps a Zen temple.   Perhaps real dialogue could be created.


René Wadlow is a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Task Force on the Middle East, president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens, and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment.


This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 4 Jun 2018.

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