Image courtesy: CGTN
While China conducts several fora and conferences, three of them have assumed prominence, the BoAo Forum for Asia usually conducted in Hainan, the Belt-and-Road Forum (BARF) and the Xiangshan Forum, both usually conducted in Beijing. The BoAo Forum, always inaugurated by the President himself, is the Chinese equivalent of the World Economic Forum at Davos. The Xiangshan forum, on the other hand, is the preeminent military forum and is usually inaugurated by the Defence Minister of China.
The just concluded (October 29-31) 10th edition of the Xiangshan Security Forum at Beijing had piqued analysts’ interests all over the world for various reasons. For one, this meeting coming after a four-year gap due to Covid-19, has convened at a time when the US-China military and political relationships are under a great strain, though there are some green shoots lately. Next, the regional situation was also fraught with incidents such as India and China continuing to engage in a military stand-off with no end in sight and close encounters between China and the Philippines, the US and its allies continuing to create tension in the Indo-China Sea, as the incidents in recent weeks around the Scarborough Shoal indicate. Taiwan is going for elections in early January 2024 and daily incursions of Chinese military assets across the midline of the Taiwan Straits or into the Taiwanese Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) have increased.
Japan and South Korea have, under US prodding, overcome, even if only superficially, their decades long animosity in an effort to form a united front against China and the three are increasing the frequency and complexity of their military exercises. The Philippines has agreed to allow more bases for the US to overlook the strategically critical Luzon Straits and Bashi Channel and the US has been constantly reminding China about the provisions of the US-Philippines Mutual Defence Treaty. The Ukraine War is meandering while China has taken an uncharacteristically strong anti-Israel position in the aftermath of the Hamas terror attack on Israel on October 7, 2023. The nuclear deterrence is failing with the top three nuclear powers, the US, Russia, and China, deciding to either modernize or increase the number of warheads. The US and Russia have withdrawn from all bilateral nuclear risk reduction treaties and Russia has been constantly threatening Ukraine with nuclear weapons. Russia has even un-ratified its accession to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT) citing the US. For its part, the US is upgrading its gravity bombs for precision and lethality. China has not only been increasing its arsenal but also moving towards a high-alert ‘launch-on-warning’ (LoW) status.
While the external situation is thus a great cause for alarm in the Indo-Pacific, Europe and West Asia, the domestic situation within China has also been worsening. The draconian and long ‘Zero-Covid’ policy of Xi Jinping not only earned complete displeasure from the citizens leading to mass protests, but also severely impacted the economy. The collapse of the Chinese real-estate sector, akin to the sub-prime crisis of the US in c. 2008, Xi Jinping’s tamping actions against private industries, the US and its allies’ trade embargo and bans, the massive failure of the BRI, and the relentless flight of capital from China have added to the headaches of CCP.
The latest spate of dismissals involving the hand-picked foreign minister, Qin Gang, who was widely expected to be Xi Jinping’s successor and the Defence Minister Li Shangfu coinciding with the dismissal of the two top Generals of the strategic PLA Rocket Forces has taken the sheen off Xi Jinping’s nascent third term. His inability to announce a successor for these two important positions at a time when crucial efforts are being made to recover the US-China relationship further diminishes Xi’s stature. So much so, that Xi Jinping has been forced to depute Zhang Youxia and He Weidong, Vice Chairmen of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and ranked second and third in the military hierarchy to share the load of the Defence Minister. The purported loss of a PLAN SSN (Nuclear Attack Submarine) in the Yellow Sea in August makes Xi Jinping’s cup of woes overflow. There is speculation that all these events are linked to serious issues of impropriety, loss of trust, corruption, and a possible penetration by foreign intelligence agencies etc.
Since Xi Jinping’s autocratic governance is built on the twin pillars of the ‘Chinese Dream’ pitch to the local populace which also includes annexation of Taiwan, and the planned blunting of the US hegemony while building up of China’s own through the ‘Belt-and-Road Initiative’, any failure in one would impact the other. Unfortunately for Xi Jinping, both narratives are in tatters at this point.
It was ironic and telling that an important security Forum, which is co-sponsored by the Chinese Defence and Foreign Ministries, had to be conducted with both the Defence and the Foreign Ministers having been dismissed a few days ahead of its inauguration. It is in this milieu that the Xiangshan Forum had convened its 10th meeting. The Chinese deliberations and the topics of discussion of the Forum reflected all these aspects. Both Zhang Youxia and He Weidong met most of the foreign dignitaries for private discussions. While He Weidong held bilateral meetings with the defense ministers from Tajikistan, Armenia, Kazakhstan, Nigeria, Azerbaijan, Singapore, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar as well as the secretary-general of ASEAN, Zhang Youxia met defense ministers of Russia, Papua New Guinea (PNG), Suriname, and Zimbabwe. China claims that it was able to attract representation from 90 countries for the 10th Edition, including 22 at the level of Defence Ministers and 14 at the level of Military Chiefs, the highest ever since the first edition of the Forum in c. 2006.
The Chinese Objectives of the Forum
The theme of the 10th Forum was ‘Common Security, Lasting Peace’, and it betrays several anxieties of China. Firstly, it shows China’s desire to devise a new security architecture displacing the existing one which is dominated by the US where it has been able to project power all over the world on its own and in concert with its allies and partners. Several of the attendees of the 10th Forum were either US security partners already or those who abide by it. Since the time he took over power, Xi Jinping has been touting various forms of security architecture, starting with the slogan ‘Asia for Asians’, the Asian Security Architecture and now the global architecture. These have been elaborated since 2014 in various fora such as “Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia” (CICA), the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), BoAo Forum, Shangri La dialogue and Xiangshan Forum. Secondly, it wants the new architecture to be with ‘Chinese Characteristics’, namely the Global Security Initiative, GSI. Thirdly, it wants to create a new bloc consisting largely of the ‘Global South’, even while formally denouncing what it calls the ‘Cold War bloc-mentality’ of the US. China wants to don the mantle of the leader of the Global South and this was obvious in its actions in all the meetings of the just concluded Delhi G-20 deliberations too as well as its involvement in the expansion of the BRICS. China wants to ensure that India does not compete with it for that title.
On the security architecture front, the forum specifically had a plenary session on the subject ‘The Role of Developing Countries in Global Security’. In parallel group sessions and seminars, the Forum discussed topics such as ‘Global South’ and global security governance, the significance of BRICS expansion, and the expectations of developing countries for globalisation, according to a People’s Daily article. The article commented that the forum was an “important pragmatic measure” for China to implement GSI, thereby clearly betraying the Chinese interests and intentions. It claimed that the Conference “has instilled confidence in all countries to maintain and achieve common security and universal security, and will continue to help build a more peaceful and secure world”. The ‘Global Security Initiative Concept Paper’, which China released in February 2023, had suggested Xiangshan Forum as a platform for popularizing it.
The Xiangshan forum initiated discussions on a new ‘Security Architecture for the Middle East’ with discussions among Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkiye, Afghanistan, Ukraine and China, coming as it does amidst the on-going Israel-Hamas conflict.
This is important because China now feels that the US influence and hence the existing security architecture in West Asia built after World War-II are declining and it can fill the vacuum. Through its ‘Petro-Dollar System’, the US thus protected its own huge demands for fossil fuel and simultaneously its strategic interests. In return, the West Asian monarchies were guaranteed protection and security. China now wants to supplant this setup.
What China and Others Said in the Forum Deliberations
The top Chinese official, Gen. Zhang Youxia said, "We will deepen strategic cooperation and coordination with Russia and are willing to, on the basis of mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation, develop military ties with the US". This was a signal that the US-China military relations are increasingly being normalized after China discontinued military-to-military contacts in August 2022, with worsening relationships especially after Li Shangfu became the Defence Minister in March, 2023. However, Zhang also reiterated Taiwan as "a core interest" of China.
On the second and last day, Vice Foreign Minister Nong Rong emphasized one of the Chinese objectives, namely GSI, in a keynote speech entitled "Jointly Implementing the Global Security Initiative for Lasting Peace and Security of the World". Traditionally, Vice Foreign Ministers of China have used the Xiangshan Forum to flesh out China’s security architecture. In the same vein Nong Rong explained in depth this time the Concept Paper on GSI released in February, 2023. He made it clear that China would get more involved in mediating conflicts. He dispelled the notions that China was a modern-day colonizer and a hegemon by saying, “Our path is neither the old path of colonization and plunder nor the crooked path of some countries seeking hegemony the moment they feel strong but is in the right direction of peaceful development”.
The Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu who was given the pride of place and spoke after the senior CMC Vice Chairman Zhang Youxia inaugurated the Forum, obviously toed the Chinese line and issued nuclear threats. He said, “Washington for years has deliberately undermined and destroyed the foundations of international security and strategic stability, including the system of arms control agreements. The Western line of steady escalation of the conflict with Russia carries the threat of a direct military clash between nuclear powers, which is fraught with catastrophic consequences”. Shoigu endorsed the Russian and Chinese models of governance and relationship, “Relations between Moscow and Beijing can serve as a model. It has become more and more attractive.”
While the Chinese media selectively leaked only portions of speeches that were deemed by them as important, it is interesting to pick up from the global media what the Chinese omitted to mention.
The Indonesian Deputy Minister for Defence suggested that countries work together according to international law principles that respect independence and sovereignty. Clearly, the most powerful member of ASEAN was referring to the arbitration award of the International Tribunal of the Laws of Seas (ITLOS) and the Chinese refusal to accept it. It was also pointing to the two decades old Code of Conduct (CoC) that the ASEAN has been unable to conclude with China over the latter’s intransigence and delaying tactics.
In the opinion of this author, the most forceful speech from any foreign defense minister was the one made by the Singaporean Defence Minister Dr Ng Eng Hen. He referred to the Ukraine War ‘fought on the battlegrounds of Ukraine’ as having been “precipitated by Russia's invasion in February 2021”, thereby being clearly at odds with China and its ‘no limits’ ally Russia. He also referred to the ‘Hamas' terror attacks on Israel’, once again differing sharply from Chinese formulations. He also reminded the gathering how the ASEAN Defence Ministers’ Meeting-Plus (ADMM+) is very representative of nearly half of the world’s population, thereby placing it on a higher pedestal than the Xiangshan Forum.
This is understandable because Singapore would not like any other forum to supplant the centrality of the ASEAN and its prestigious Shangri La Dialogue. He also brought up the issues of ‘maritime security in the South China Sea’ and the ‘nuclear and security threats on the Korean Peninsula’. By referring to the ASEAN member states adopting international protocols such as Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and Guidelines for Air Military Encounters (GAME) and demanding extending these to ‘paramilitary vessels, particularly coast guards’ as well, he was clearly indicating at the need for Chinese adherence to these. He also offered three broad suggestions to China ‘to promote stability in this region and globally’. While the first suggestion was about market integration, the second and third were more forthright. The second asked China “to promote multilateralism and uphold the rule of law. That is China's greatest assurance to other nations, big or small, that China's growth is inclusive and will lift all boats – that as China grows economically and militarily, it does not seek to supplant or replace others based on its own national interests”. The third asked China to realize that it “must lead to reducing tensions in our region. Whether China accepts it or not, wants it or not, it is already seen as a dominant power and must therefore act as a benevolent one”. With these three, he hoped that “China's progress will be seen and acted upon as a virtue rather than a threat”. In the Question & Answer session, he indirectly criticized China even more when he said that there are “initiatives and then you have the balloon incident and then you have the Alaskan incident and it disrupts the whole process. Each time it occurs, the US Secretary of Defense has said to me, “ the military-to-military talks are stalled and you cannot make progress”.” He was blunt to a Chinese questioner who hinted that East Asia was peaceful when he said that East Asia was not peaceful on its own unlike North or South America. He was even blunter when he continued to say, ” . . . we took a position on this some time ago, whether the US is a stabilizing force or not. In the 1990s, when the US had to come out of Clark and Subic, we took a position that the US was a stabilizing force, and that we would offer their ships and planes access to our ports and bases. We still take the view that the US is a stabilizing force”. Dr. Ng Eng Hen is a long-serving Defence Minister of Singapore. His articulation now must be seen in the context of what he said in c. 2015 in the 6th edition of the Xiangshan Forum when he welcomed, “China’s leadership in seeking solutions to [regional security] problems.”
Nigeria’s defense minister, Mohammed Badaru Abubakar, stressed the importance of countries adhering to international law during these times of turbulence.
The US sent only a low-powered delegation, led by Ms. Cynthia Karas, Director General for China, Taiwan and Mongolia at the US Department of Defense and there was no speech by any US member at the Forum. But Ms. Cynthia Karas met the Chief Spokesperson of the Chinese Defence Ministry, Colonel Wu Qian on the sidelines of the Forum. This was significant in light of the removal of the US-sanctioned Gen. Li Shangfu as the Defence Minister, the just concluded visit of the Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi to the US and the upcoming meeting between the Presidents of the US and China. Col. Wu is said to have asked the US side to take practical measures to build a "favorable atmosphere" for the two nations' military communication and exchanges. In view of the fact that in the last one year, the Chinese Ministry of Defence had refused to attend any call from its American counterparts, this statement by Wu indicated the complete normalization of communications.
The worldwide events are clearly moving towards a denouement and China not only wants to have its say in that but assume a determining stake in that. It has been propounding economic, military and cultural initiatives ever since Xi Jinping took power in c. 2012. These initiatives are not only to supplant the extant American hegemony but propel China to the apex replacing the US. After a gap, caused by COVID, China has re-launched one of its most important military fora, the Xiangshan Forum. Every move that China has been making has been designed to strike at the US hegemony, whether it is Ukraine or Gaza. The attempt has been to build a ‘bloc’ against the US, while poaching its allies and partners, even while denouncing such ‘bloc politics’ as ‘a relic of Cold War mentality’.
The developments in Ladakh, East Asia, Ukraine and Israel have given no option to China but to convene the Xiangshan forum even when it had just dismissed both the Defence and Foreign Ministers in an unprecedented move. That the two ministries have been the co-sponsors of the Xiangshan Forum ever since its inception, underscores the importance and urgency of this meeting even in the absence of the Ministers.