Halifax Forum Had Plenty of Bad News to Ponder

By Stew Magnuson

Halifax International Security Forum photo

HALIFAX, Nova Scotia — A lot has happened since the last Halifax International Security Forum took place in Canada in 2019.

The COVID-19 pandemic, of course, looms large and forced the 2020 confab to be held mostly online. Russia has amassed troops on the Ukraine border. Then, there is the ever-present challenge of an ascending China.

For those who aren’t familiar with the forum, it is an annual gathering of pro-democracy and pro-defense minded intellectuals, who are very much aligned with the philosophies of the late President Ronald Reagan and Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.

The invitation-only event attracts a bipartisan group of lawmakers, ambassadors, nonprofit leaders, senior military officers, prominent journalists and think tank analysts and is limited to 300 participants.

Many of these attendees believe America is strongest when it forms alliances such as NATO, the best offense is a good defense, and that the world is a better, safer place when the United States puts the world “first” instead of itself.

They believe in the ideal that America can still be the “city on a hill” that Massachusetts Bay colony founder John Winthrop described in 1630, a phrase later so deftly co-opted by Reagan in his presidential campaign speeches, where it became the “shining city on a hill” — a place where other nations can look to as inspiration.

The 2021 Halifax meeting took place only a few months after the world marked the 20th anniversary of 9/11, an event that had huge repercussions, as Peter Van Praagh, founding president and the driving force behind the forum, said in his opening remarks.

“This weekend, we will reflect on how we got here. It is too important not to. And at the same time, there are too many challenges before us to let reflection become unending naval gazing. We will look ahead to the threats to our democracies, both external and homegrown,” he said.

Along with COVID-19, the world witnessed Hong Kong lose its liberties virtually overnight as China asserted its will on its citizens. A military junta took control of Myanmar — again. And a 20-year effort to create stability and install a representative-based government in Afghanistan came to nothing.

But perhaps the most disconcerting event of all for the pro-democracy crowd came on Jan. 6 when the “shining city on the hill” — the U.S. Capitol — was overrun by violent political extremists.

No, things are not trending in a positive direction for the freedom-loving, pro-democracy crowd.

While the forum had panel discussions dedicated to every region — Europe and NATO, Africa, Latin America, the Middle East and so on, nothing dominated conversations more than China, which the forum organizers view as one of “the world’s most pressing challenges.”

The forum produced a 93-page book, China Vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game: A Handbook for Democracies. It has started a social media campaign, #StandTogetherOnChina, and plans to hold its first meeting outside of Halifax in 2022 in Taipei, Taiwan.

As forum organizers are strong believers in alliances, the Quad came up several times in discussions.

The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is a group of four nations — the United States, Japan, Australia and India — that have had periodic talks on security in the Indo-Pacific with a focus on the China threat. National Defense in the December 2021 issue ran a special report looking at the potential of the Quad to form a technology alliance against China.

As some of the comments on the Quad at the conference were off the record, here is a broad summary of some of leading experts’ thoughts on the informal alliance.

First, there is a lot of debate as to whether the Quad should expand and take in other like-minded nations in the region. When leaders of the four nations met in Washington, D.C., in September, representatives from New Zealand, South Korea and Vietnam joined them in what was called the “Quad-Plus.”

Experts were split on whether expanding the Quad would be a good thing or bad thing.

Japan, rather than the United States, is the driving force behind the Quad as it emerges from its post- World War II pacifist leanings and faces an ever more aggressive China.

India is also seen as a crucial member. Its buy-in is considered vital. Yet, India is at pains to show that the “dialogue” is just that, and not a military alliance. The joint statement released by the four nations after the September meeting did not actually mention China, and press reports at the time said it was India that didn’t want to call out its rival by name.

Further, Indian leaders believe the Malabar joint naval exercise off the coast of India that involves the four nations shouldn’t be seen as a Quad-sponsored event.

All this is somewhat ironic as India is the only one of the four nations engaging in military operations against China as the two nations periodically skirmish over a border dispute in the Himalayas.

China is rapidly evolving from a nation that was “un-democratic” to one that is “anti-democratic.” In other words, it is now actively attacking democracy as a political system and promoting its one-party system as superior.

Another question: will we soon see the Quad take concrete steps to thwart China’s ambitions? Or is it just going to be a coffee klatch of leaders gathering to air grievances? Time will tell.

Topics: Defense Department, Defense Contracting

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