In an effort to strengthen China’s regional leadership role and promote its new Asian security concept, China’s military convened the fifth Xiangshan Forum, November 20-22. Previously a venue held in alternate years for foreign scholars and the PLA to conduct exchanges on international security issues, this year’s conference was upgraded to an annual Track 1.5 defense meeting designed to emulate, and perhaps to undermine, the long-standing Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore by the United Kingdom’s Institute of International Strategic Studies. Hosted by China’s Society of Military Sciences under the auspices of the Ministry of National Defense, the newly upgraded Xiangshan Forum included 20 officials at or above deputy defense minister, and representatives from 40 countries in East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and four international organizations.
The conference theme was “Building an Asian Community of Shared Destiny,” an objective stressed by Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Diplomatic Work Conference on Periphery Diplomacy held in October 2013. The keynote speech was delivered by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, who began his remarks by recalling China’s “wretched history” marked by the “unrelenting aggression of foreign powers.” Alongside calls for the implementation of Xi’s vision of an Asian region based on “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security,” Chinese speakers condemned the persistence of “Cold War mentality,” “zero-sum game,” “worship of force,” and the strengthening of U.S.-led bilateral military alliances.
The “Asia for Asians” message that Xi Jinping delivered in his speech to the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) in May was reiterated by Deputy Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin in a speech to the delegates. “Asian countries bear primary responsibility for the security of their region,” Liu declared. He and other Chinese officials also insisted that China views Asia as open and inclusive, though they failed to reconcile these seemingly contradictory concepts.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel’s harsh criticism of China at the Shangri-La Dialogue in June apparently precipitated Beijing’s decision to elevate the Xiangshan Forum. A PLA officer privately admitted that China wanted a gathering with representatives from a broader spectrum of countries who would criticize not only Chinese policies but U.S. policies as well. A Russian scholar was among those who helped to achieve this goal by accusing the U.S. of instigating the crisis in Ukraine and attempting to carrying out color revolutions around the world. Expressions of concern about China’s actions in the South China Sea were unavoidable, however. Senior defense officials from Singapore, Malaysia, Myanmar, and the Philippines made explicit references to tensions in the South China Sea, though they stopped short of naming China as the perpetrator, and called for their peaceful management and resolution.
Breakout sessions were held on maritime disputes, regional security architecture and counter-terrorism. In the panel on maritime disputes that I attended, there were heated exchanges about the cause of rising tensions and impact of the U.S. rebalance to Asia. Chinese participants insisted that the U.S. is exploiting friction between China and its neighbors to strengthen its regional position and emboldening regional nations to challenge Chinese sovereignty. Speakers from various countries proposed the implementation of confidence building measures, including hotlines among regional military as well as law-enforcement agency headquarters and operators, increased joint exercises for humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and expanded information sharing networks.
The topic of regional security architecture was central to the objective of the Xiangshan Forum and to Xi Jinping’s new Asian Security Concept. Chinese dissatisfaction with the prevailing security system dominated by the United States was palpable. Although there was no clear alternative put forward, Chinese officials and scholars called for the creation of new structures that are strictly Asian, based on Asian needs, in accordance with Asian wisdom and efforts. They evidently hope that as China’s power grows, it will be able shape a regional security order that favors Chinese interests—one without U.S. alliances. In the years to come, the Xiangshan Forum will continue to seek to make a contribution to achieving this key objective.