This year’s Xiangshan Forum took place amidst serious domestic and international challenges for China. As the People’s Republic celebrated its 70th year anniversary early this month, protests in Hong Kong continue to rage and have even become more violent, while cross-Strait ties became more acrimonious. Concerns about the supposed detention of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang intensify. A partial trade deal with the United States brought some relief, but the end to the 15-month trade spat may still be out of sight. Tensions in the South China Sea continue despite enhanced confidence-building measures and ongoing negotiations to conclude a code of conduct. This said, the forum presented an opportunity for China to allay fears attendant to its rise. More importantly, it also displayed Beijing’s poise to play a greater security role.
This year’s theme “Maintaining International Order, Promoting Peace in the Asia-Pacific” cannot be more apt. Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action to curb Iran’s nuclear ambitions, UN Arms Trade Treaty, Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty and the Open Skies Treaty unsettles multilateralism and non-proliferation. It also jeopardizes longstanding arms-control and confidence-building regimes. The abrupt departure of US troops from north-eastern Syria raises doubts about enduring American commitment to allies and to the multinational coalition to defeat terrorism. Indeed, the forum offered China the chance to project itself as the unlikely defender of a global security order besieged by unilateral attacks from its former architect and advocate. The forum may also respond to America’s vision for a Free and Open Indo-Pacific, especially its attempt to revitalize alliances and partnerships with countries in China’s periphery.
Xiangshan which rivals Singapore’s Shangri-La Dialogue has come a long way since its debut in 2006. From a biennial forum, it has become an annual summit since 2014, although failing to convene in 2017 due to logistical difficulties. Countries participating in the forum has grown over the years. From fourteen countries in 2006, last year’s participants climbed to 68. It also drew regional and global organizations such as the European Union, NATO, ASEAN, African Union, Shanghai Cooperation Organization, International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations. The geographic profile of the attendees also suggests its global appeal, with participants coming from Europe, Africa, the Pacific and the Western Hemisphere. From its humble beginnings in 2006, the forum had sought to engage other permanent members of the UN Security Council – US, Russia, UK and France – as well as other European countries like Sweden, Norway and neighbors India, Japan, South Korea, Singapore and Philippines, among others.
From an informal track two dialogue, it has become a high-level venue gathering senior defense officials and security experts from Asia and beyond. Xiangshan exudes inclusivity. In its eight iteration last year, fifteen foreign defense ministers and twelve vice ministers attended. This included defense ministers from Singapore, Vietnam, Serbia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Ecuador, Cambodia, and Nepal and deputy ministers from Russia, Philippines, North Korea, and Sri Lanka who all delivered their respective remarks. In 2016, former U.S. National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, former Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke, New Zealand Defense Minister Gerry Brownlee, United Nations Under-Secretary General Atul Khare and the defense ministers of Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Timor-Leste, and Nepal were among the guest speakers. That said, attendees from Western countries remain generally low-key, and are primarily composed of defense attaches and think-tank experts. However, delegations from neighboring countries, with the exception of India and Japan, remain high-level.
This year, however, attendance increased and the dialogue covered deeper issues. Over 1,300 participants from 76 official delegations attended, including defense ministers from 23 countries. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Chad Sbragia became the highest US defense official to join the Beijing security forum. His 20-man team was also the biggest delegation the US dispatched for the event. Russia also sent its highest defense official, Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, to attend. The forum highlighted a broad range of security issues, from the perspectives of major and lesser powers, ranging from maritime security, the use of artificial intelligence, and the future of warfare. In its ninth iteration, the Xiangshan Forum also showed its ability to adjust and evolve. It demonstrated Beijing’s increasing power to convene and its responsiveness to emerging security threats. Although China is not known for its openness on security matters, the forum did provide a venue for frank exchange on pressing security issues.
The Xiangshan Forum is a venue for China to articulate its foreign and defense policy, as well as the underlying principles behind them. It is a platform to state the country’s position on key regional flashpoints, such as the Korean Peninsula, the South China Sea, and Taiwan. China continues to call for a broader conception of security, a win-win approach to replace the zero-sum mentality, civilizational dialogue instead of a clash of civilizations and peace through development. However, the message still rings hollow. Major power rivalry continues to stoke fears among smaller countries increasingly caught in between two competing giants. Big power chauvinism and assertiveness in areas under dispute continue to undermine its peaceful rise narrative. Increased centralization of power at home and attitude towards dissent engender concerns about the values China will promote and support abroad, if any. This is especially so at a time of growing populism and disruptions to the longstanding liberal world order. Indeed, the challenge of communicating and convincing the world had just begun.