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China’s defense diplomacy at Shangri-La Dialogue since 2007

Published Jun 01, 2019
Updated Apr 15, 2020

For the first time in eight years and the second time in history, China has sent its defense minister to take part in the annual Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) in Singapore, officially known as the Asia Security Summit.

Wei Fenghe, Chinese state councilor and defense minister, will deliver a speech on China and International Security Cooperation and meet with the heads of delegations of a number of countries during the three-day event, which opens on Friday, according to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian.

Launched by British think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) and the Singaporean government in 2002, the SLD is a major defense forum in Asia attended by representatives from around the world.

IISS Director-General Dr. John Chipman said earlier that Wei will “speak on China’s role in the Asia-Pacific at a pivotal time for the region.” The speech will be delivered on Sunday, the IISS said on its website.

Other high-profile figures participating in the 18th SLD include Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, U.S. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya, South Korean Defense Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini, British Defense Secretary Penny Mordaunt, and French Defense Minister Florence Parly.

“China attaches great importance to taking part in the multilateral security dialogue,” Wu said at a regular press briefing on Thursday, adding that Wei will elaborate on China’s stance and proposals on international security cooperation.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (R) meets with Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe ahead of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, May 30, 2019./Chinaese Defense Minstry Photo.

Amid tensions between Beijing and Washington on issues such as trade and the South China Sea, how Wei will interact with his U.S. counterpart is closely watched. The two sides are “actively coordinating and communicating on” a meeting between the two defense chiefs, the spokesman noted.

Commenting on the much-anticipated meeting, Ngoei Wen-Qing, assistant professor in the School of Humanities at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, told CGTN that he thinks Wei and Shanahan may reach “some level of accommodation” on the two countries’ disputes, but a major breakthrough seems unlikely.

“I think we need to manage our expectations,” he said. “In many ways, it’s a talk about how to talk.”

China’s role in multilateral security cooperation

Beijing did not send high-level delegations to the SLD until 2007, when Zhang Qinsheng, then deputy chief of the general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), represented the country at the forum.

In a speech titled “Strengthening Dialogue and Cooperation and Maintaining Peace and Prosperity,” Zhang proposed further enhancing strategic mutual trust, upholding open multilateralism, and further strengthening security cooperati

At the 2011 edition of the forum, Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Liang Guanglie made a historic appearance with a high-level PLA delegation. He outlined four principles in international cooperation on security:

– Mutual respect, equal treatment, and care for each other’s core interests and major concerns;

– Mutual understandings, mutual trust, and comprehensive understandings of each other’s strategic intents;

– Mutual benefit, and no confrontational alliance against any third party;

– Openness, cooperation, and welcome to countries in other regions to contribute to Asia’s security.

Liang also met with defense chiefs of the U.S., Britain, Australia, South Korea and Japan.

A general view shows the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, June 1, 2018. /VCG Photo
Last year, He Lei, vice president of the PLA Academy of Military Science, and then U.S. defense secretary Jim Mattis made tit-for-tat remarks on the subject of the South China Sea during the event.

“It’s within China’s sovereignty to deploy troops and weapons on our islands and reefs in the South China Sea,” Lieutenant General He stressed. “It’s allowed by international law. Anyone who makes carping comments on this is trying to interfere in China’s internal affairs.”

In contrast, Mattis accused China of placing weapons on the islands “for the purposes of intimidation and coercion.”

Besides the SLD, China actively participates in regional security cooperation through multilateral platforms such as the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). At the fourth CICA summit in east China’s Shanghai five years ago, Chinese President Xi Jinping raised a new security vision for Asia, which advocates “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security” in the region.

Meanwhile, the country has held eight editions of the Beijing Xiangshan Forum (formerly known as the Xiangshan Forum), an event launched in 2006 and aiming to promote exchanges and cooperation among defense authorities, armed forces, international organizations and scholars.