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Historically, China has had a complicated relationship with the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s foremost multilateral security forum held annually in Singapore. To the irritation of leaders in Beijing, the discussions over the years at Shangri-La have become increasingly directed towards Chinese assertiveness in regional flashpoints such as the South and East China Seas. Following a particularly acrimonious event in 2014, there was a brief debate in Beijing on whether China should continue to participate at all. A fist-thumping outburst by PLA General Wang Guanzhong – which followed criticism of China’s South China Sea policy by former US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel – did no favours for China’s reputation as a responsible regional security actor.
If China eventually chooses to pursue this course of action, it would mark the latest strategy in a long series of others to mitigate the effect of the Shangri-La Dialogue on China’s reputation. In the early years, China remained aloof to the discussions in Singapore entirely, and then deigned to send only lower level officials in an attempt to dilute the event’s importance. As the Shangri-La has emerged as a major diplomatic arena, Beijing sent PLA heavies, like General Wang, to tackle criticism head-on. The last iteration, in May 2015, witnessed attendance from China’s most high-profile visitor to date, Deputy Chief of the General Staff – and head of PLA intelligence – Admiral Sun Jianguo, who made a valiant attempt at press engagement, albeit while nervously clutching a set of talking points.
To those who have witnessed China’s engagement with the Shangri-La Dialogue over recent years, the idea that China needs a ‘louder voice’ in regional security forums may sound surprising. Yet that is precisely how the state-run China Daily put it when discussing the importance of the Xiangshan Forum, a multilateral meeting held earlier this month in Beijing by two of China’s premier military think tanks.
Attended by 500 participants from sixty countries, this year’s Xiangshan Forum was a considerable step-up in scale from previous iterations. It also marked an attempt by China to exert more control over track-two discussions on security in Asia – and a ploy to wrest control of the security discourse in Asia away from Western institutions. (The Shangri-La Dialogue is organized by the UK-based International Institute for Strategic Studies).
New Security Architecture
Steering the discussion away from the region’s troublesome political fault lines, most Chinese plenary speakers at Xiangshan dwelled on the need for a ‘new security architecture’ to manage the region’s tensions. This is not a new concept in Chinese diplomatic parlance. President Xi Jinping raised the idea at the 2013 CICA Summit in Shanghai, and essentially defined it as a model in which regional security problems are ‘solved by Asians themselves.’ The rebuke of Western-led alliance systems inherent in Mr Xi’s call is clear.
Against the backdrop of major security crises in Ukraine and the Middle East, China’s leaders evidently believe there is some traction to this concept. Acting as the Forum’s closing speaker, China’s former Ambassador to the UN, Wu Jianmin, remarked that Asia has enjoyed three decades of peace and prosperity precisely because it has avoided polarising NATO-style multilateral alliance systems, and rejected military interventionism. Reinforcing the sense of an Asia-centric event was that three of the conference’s four plenary sessions, which dealt with regional security challenges such as counter-terrorism and maritime security, did not feature Western speakers at all.
By and large, the fourteen defence ministers attending the conference were happy to defer to Chinese leadership. Singapore’s Defence Minister declared his country’s support for ‘China’s leadership in seeking solutions to [regional security] problems.’ His Malaysian counterpart spoke of the ‘warm gestures and commitment to security from China.’ Almost everyone was positive about a new agreement for multilateral maritime-rescue and disaster-relief exercises reached between Chinese and ASEAN defence ministers in Beijing, on 16 October, the day before the conference.
The scene was set, therefore, for a productive Chinese-led discussion in which the region’s players were evidently willing to play a role. The results, however, were underwhelming. Discussion during the plenary sessions was buried in a heap of diplomatic platitudes: ‘win-win collaboration’, ‘cooperative mechanisms’, ‘trust building’, and ‘crisis management’ were bandied about without clear reference to the root problems they are supposed to address. Without identification of the friction points that are driving regional insecurity, discussion on remedial measures proved fruitless and often confusing. The lasting question from the Xiangshan was whether China is ready to confront regional security problems in a fashion commensurate with its tacit claims to leadership.
Nevertheless, while most Chinese speakers at the Xiangshan ducked away from the challenges that preoccupy its neighbours and rivals, they showed mastery over the language of modern diplomacy. Keynote speakers such as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, General Fan Changlong, who delivered the conference’s opening address, dwelled at length on the value of dialogue, multilateral groupings, the importance of regional economic integration to peace and stability, norms and international law.
That China generally shows little regard for these constraints when pursuing its international security objectives is obvious to anyone familiar with the output of PLA analysts, who focus incessantly on the balance of power with the U.S., China’s strategic ‘rights and interests’, and the role of a strong military in securing political objectives. China’s stance on the South China Sea, meanwhile, defies moderation through dialogue and institutional mechanisms because it is not clear how China’s territorial and maritime claims are consistent with international law. Thus far, China has refused to offer a clarification. Beijing has boycotted a Philippine-led tribunal in The Hague tasked with scrutinising the legality of Beijing’s maritime claims. It is pushing instead for ad-hoc bilateral negotiations with each of the claimant states.
Ironically, the only realist voices at the Xiangshan came from U.S. participants such as China expert David Lampton, who discussed the danger of the ‘Thucydides Trap’ in US–China relations, and the concessions that Washington may need to make to accommodate China’s rise as a great power. This may not be an attractive or easy debate, but it is commendable for its willingness to confront the problems that lie at the core of regional tensions.
Yet with little else than platitudes to propel the discussions at Xiangshan forward, the conference fizzled out without consensus on anything other than dialogue is good, cooperation benefits all, and that negotiation is preferable to confrontation. If the Xiangshan Forum is to emerge as an equal to existing initiatives such as the Shangri-La Dialogue, China must shed its cloak of diplomatic niceties, and confront the insecurity that its rise, rightly or wrongly, has generated in the region.