Of all the security-related forums in the Asia-Pacific, the Shangri-La Dialogue is undoubtedly the most influential, with a focus on China and the U.S. The organizer, the International Institute for Strategic Studies, arranges for the U.S. secretary of defense to speak first on the first day and for the Chinese to speak first on the second day. This allows America and its allies to “speak ill” of China and ensures that the Chinese will counterattack on the second day. The effect is dramatic. One’s nose needn’t be sensitive to detect the smell of gunpowder in the air.
Now the dialogue has a competitor — the Beijing Xiangshan Forum. Since 2014, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense has turned the forum into a Track 1.5 meeting to include both senior governmental officials and eminent scholars. It has grown quickly. This year, delegates from 76 countries including 23 defense ministers and six defense chiefs will attend the ninth forum from Oct. 20 to 22.As if to distance itself from the Shangri-La Dialogue, the forum invites delegations from every continent, and the themes are carefully chosen to strike a balance. For example, the first session on relations between major powers and the international order is balanced with another session on the interests of middle powers and small states. In 2015, the floor was even given to the defense minister of the Maldives. This is rare for a major forum.
What does the People’s Liberation Army want? If the parade in Tiananmen Square to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China has showcased the PLA’s latest progress in weaponry and equipment, then the forum’s aim is to enhance the PLA’s soft power, including its power of persuasion on the international scene.
This is no easy job. The international media are predominantly shaped by Western countries and not necessarily friendly towards Beijing — most often not. But a stronger China is in a better position to elaborate its own views, and for good reason. Politically, China is no longer shy about stating that it is a beneficiary, and therefore a guardian, of the current international order, which is still very much led by the West. Economically, China’s huge success is bound to attract both listeners and followers. And militarily, the fact that China’s rise has been peaceful and that the PLA has started to provide more security to the world is good enough to brush away accusations of the PLA being “coercive” or “assertive.”
The Beijijng Xiangshan Forum is useful, first of all, to indicate the future direction of the PLA. In 2017, China unveiled an ambitious road map for its army to become mechanized by 2020, modernized by 2035 and world-class by the mid-21st century. Few doubt that this is achievable. China has made a sustained investment in defense, and the Chinese military industry can produce almost everything that’s needed independently. For many, the gap between the Chinese and American military appears to be shrinking to the advantage of the PLA.
This invites a series of some most important questions for the forum: What is the role of the PLA in the Belt and Road Initiative? Is “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, when the PRC will celebrate its centennial, also the deadline for reunification with Taiwan? If the U.S. is tired of being a world policeman, is the PLA willing to play a bigger role beyond its current humanitarian operations? If indeed the West has miscalculated to conclude that China would eventually become “one of us,” isn’t GPC (the latest acronym of the Pentagon for great power competition) a prelude to another cold war? Can China and the U.S. only cooperate, as a joke said, in the face of an invasion by Martians?
Another value of the forum is to shed light on some claims that are, in the Beijing’s eyes, merely excuses to tarnish the image of China, especially over the South China Sea. China is said to have militarized the South China Sea, but there is no commonly agreed-upon definition on militarization. If the PLA’s deployment of some weapons on various islands is considered militarization, what about U.S. Navy’s close-in surveillance and reconnaissance punctuated with increased “freedom of navigation” operations, especially for a country that maintains that it has no position on the South China Sea? The islands are described as “artificial”, but how can they be artificial if Chinese troops are already stationed on them and their names were known to all before land reclamation?
The same is true about the so-called rules-based order. Without detailed definition, the catchphrase threatens to mean anything for anybody. But if it is tailor-made to hint that China doesn’t observe international rules, one has to think hard which international treaties are void of Chinese signatures. Today, China appears at every international meeting as a supporter, even a champion, of multilateralism. By contrast, the U.S. administration, led by a protectionist and self-proclaimed unpredictable President Donald Trump doesn’t seem to care at all about breaking rules for the sake of “America First.”
The virtual absence of high-powered Western delegations at the Beijing Xiangshan Forums is the white elephant in the room. Comparatively, the PLA at least has the guts to send senior delegations to the Shangri-La Dialogues to weather any storms. At the dialogue in June, Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe answered 21 questions with ease and asked with smiles if there were more questions to come. This is something new. It speaks volumes about the confidence of the PLA and projects an image that everyone wishes to see.