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Why China’s defence minister is attending Shangri-La Dialogue after 8-year break

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, like its previous iterations, has been a much-anticipated one. One thing which has caught observers’ attention is the participation of the Chinese Defence Minister following an eight-year hiatus.

General Wei’s attendance at the security forum in Singapore could be intended to herald a “reset” of China’s defence diplomacy outreach, says the author. The Chinese defence minister is seen here at the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing in October 2018.

General Wei’s attendance at the security forum in Singapore could be intended to herald a “reset” of China’s defence diplomacy outreach, says the author. The Chinese defence minister is seen here at the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing in October 2018.

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This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD), like its previous iterations, has been much anticipated. It is not only because it remains the premier regional security dialogue where a diverse array of salient security issues will be discussed.

What has caught observers’ attention is the participation of the Chinese Defence Minister following an eight-year hiatus.

From 2012 to 2018, Beijing dispatched only lower-ranking, non-ministerial grade officials to the event. So General Wei Fenghe’s attendance at this year’s SLD is interesting, especially when viewed in the context of the intensifying Sino-American rivalry.

Furthermore, this marks only the second time China will have a defence minister lead its delegation at the SLD since it started almost two decades ago. What is Beijing’s objective in sending Gen Wei this year and what message will he seek to deliver?

With the United States again represented by its top Pentagon official — albeit in the form of Acting Secretary of Defence Patrick Shanahan pending his confirmation by the Senate — will we see sparks fly at the SLD between the two major powers?

As it stands, various seemingly intractable challenges have bedeviled bilateral relations between the two countries. The trade tensions have recently taken a turn for the worse.

Both parties continue to parry with each other over strategic security issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait.

More broadly, there is bipartisan support in the US for a tougher stance against China on economic, security and human rights issues while there is a general Chinese perception that Washington is trying to curtail China’s rise.

Of late, Chinese scholars from state-linked think-tanks and military institutions have lamented increasingly difficult and challenging strategic communications with their American counterparts.

Some of them also pointed out that the Trump administration’s hardline stance over outstanding issues such as trade and Chinese core interests such as Taiwan and the South China Sea has foreclosed meaningful dialogue and ramped up the risks of confrontation.

They cite the increased frequency of freedom of navigation operations through which Washington seeks to challenge Beijing’s expansive maritime claims in the South China Sea as an example.

Last September saw the most serious close maritime encounter to date between the Chinese and US during the USS Decatur incident.

CHINA’S THINKING

SLD organisers have in previous years cited the People’s Liberation Army’s reforms as a reason for China’s relatively low level of participation.

With PLA’s structural reforms completed, Gen Wei’s attendance could be intended to herald a “reset” of China’s defence diplomacy outreach.

Indeed, defence diplomacy has been a key prong of the PLA’s overall outreach in the region and increasingly, the wider global community.

Defence and security engagements, such as overseas port calls by the PLA Navy, joint training exercises and the inaugural Asean-China Maritime Exercise last August, have brought about greater exposure of the Chinese military to an external audience.

It is debatable whether such outreach has attained the intended objectives of promoting not only practical security cooperation but also more crucially,  building mutual confidence and strategic trust with China’s neighbours.

Many of these countries continue to have territorial disputes with China, such as those in the East and South China Seas.

One of the less talked about, but no less important, values of major international security events like the SLD is the opportunity presented for national delegations to meet on the sidelines in closed-door sessions.

The American and Chinese delegations are likely to make use of the SLD as a platform to touch base and discuss teething bilateral issues of concerns, especially those related to military confidence- and security-building measures.

A US official has been quoted by Reuters as saying that General Wei and Mr Shanahan will have a “pull-aside” at the SLD, referring to a short, less formal discussion than an official bilateral meeting.  

Despite the current tension between both sides, they remain deeply interdependent and have every incentive to continue engaging in dialogue, be it at senior officials’ or ministerial level.

Gen Wei’s attendance at the SLD serves a few other possible objectives. First, it ties in with Beijing’s grand strategic narrative of upholding multilateralism that posits itself in stark contrast to perceptions that this is an area the Trump administration is turning its back on.

A relevant point to note is that China does not lack international security platforms at which to air its views. In 2006, it initiated an analogue to the SLD in the form of the Beijing Xiangshan Forum.

However, while this forum has been extensively covered by the Chinese press, it does not enjoy the same profile in the international media.

More pragmatically, one could view Gen Wei’s SLD attendance as part of China’s broader effort to make itself heard more prominently.

Ministerial-level participation in major international events such as the SLD not only allows Beijing to outline its national interests and strategic outlook in a more robustly visible manner, but also helps to incorporate some “balance” in the discussions.

Could we see a replay of what happened during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Papua New Guinea last November when Chinese President Xi Jinping and the US Vice President Mike Pence traded barbs over competing narratives for the future world order?

This is possible considering that Mr Shanahan is expected to assess the key Indo-Pacific security challenges and elaborate on the Trump administration’s strategy for the region.

Gen Wei is likely to offer an “alternative” counterpoint to his.

REGIONAL RESPONSES

While Gen Wei and Mr Shanahan would almost certainly espouse contrarian views of the present and future world order, it is not presumptuous to say that even where security is concerned, both Beijing and Washington still have areas where they can cooperate.

Amid the intensifying competitive dynamics between the two, a sharp exchange between both sides in full view of their regional partners is likely to elicit polarised responses.

Strategic allies of the US such as Australia and Japan would largely align their strategic security outlooks with that espoused by Washington, notwithstanding some differences in policies over trade issues.

For small states and middle powers in South-east Asia, strategic ambivalence looks set to remain the dominant approach as most of these countries would continue to welcome a continued American security presence and engagement while eagerly seeking to jump onto the economic bandwagon of China.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Koh Swee Lean Collin is a research fellow at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

Related topics

China US Shangri-La Dialogue security

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