Security Dialogues with Chinese Characteristics

PRC State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe delivers remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore this June (source: China Daily)

This summer, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) organized two multilateral security dialogues with African nations, which highlight Beijing’s efforts to promote an alternative model of international security. In June, representatives of the PRC and six East African states convened in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia for the first China-Horn of Africa Peace, Governance and Development Conference, which is an initiative that was originally proposed by Foreign Minister Wang Yi during his January visit to Kenya (Guangming Daily, June 27; PRC Foreign Ministry, January 7). At the meeting, PRC Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa Xue Bing said that Beijing sought a greater role in the region, “not only in trade and investments but also in the area of peace and development” (South China Morning Post, June 23). The conference resulted in a joint statement committing to utilize confidence building, dispute resolution, dialogue and negotiation to achieve a “lasting peace” in the region (China News Service, June 23). In doing so, the parties pledged to uphold the “common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security concept,” which was first laid out by President Xi Jinping in 2014 as a core element of his vision for a new international security architecture (Xinhua, May 24). Xi cited the need to remain committed to this concept as motivation for the PRC’s new Global Security Initiative, which he introduced in April (China Brief, May 13). Earlier this week, the Ministry of National Defense (MND) hosted the second “China-Africa Peace and Security Forum,” which was virtually attended by senior defense leaders from nearly fifty African countries (Gov.cn, July 26). In his keynote remarks, State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe read a congratulatory letter from Xi, which hailed the resilience of Sino-African friendship in a challenging international landscape and called for the implementation of the Global Security Initiative (People’s Daily, July 26). Although somewhat short on specifics, Beijing has promoted the Global Security Initiative as a positive-sum, “common security” model in contrast to the militaristic, zero-sum approach it ascribes to the United States  (China Brief, July 15).

Beijing has long viewed non-government organizations and think tanks, including the bilateral and multilateral dialogues that they convene, as a key source of western influence. Nevertheless, when it comes to the leading regional and international defense forums, PRC state media maintains it is better for China to participate than to remain on the sidelines (China News Service, June 4, 2014). For example, a recent piece in the domestic edition of the Global Times (环球时报, Huanqiu Shibao) acknowledges that the Shangri-La Dialogue, which is hosted annually in Singapore by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, provides the U.S. Secretary of Defense with a platform to present Washington’s perspective on Asian security issues. However, the article also notes approvingly that on this year’s agenda, the PRC Minister of Defense is the only official given equal billing to the U.S. Secretary of Defense (Huanqiu, May 6). In addition to participating in leading multilateral defense summits such as the Shangri-La Dialogue and the Munich Security Conference, the PRC has sought to advance its own international security conferences such as the Beijing Xiangshan Forum and the World Peace Forum (see “Security Dialogues Organized by the PRC” below). A major driver of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) increasingly proactive approach to international security dialogues, both as a participant and an organizer, is the emphasis that Xi has placed on military diplomacy as a key element of the PRC’s overall foreign policy approach (Xinhuanet, January 30, 2015). This trend is likely to continue as defense dialogues are used by the PRC to socialize its new Global Security Initiative with potential partner countries. This also aligns with Beijing’s record of using diplomatic summitry to establish multilateral economic development initiatives, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), which is promoted through the Belt and Road Forum, as well as numerous regional and bilateral channels.

The Ministry’s Mission

In the Chinese system, the MND’s role is not analogous to that of foreign defense ministries. As the PLA is the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party and not a national military, the Central Military Commission (CMC), led by chairman Xi Jinping and Vice Chairmen Xu Qiliang and Zhang Youxia, exercises command authority over the armed forces (China Brief, June 17). Consequently, the MND, which is a state body, does not superintend the Chinese military. Minister Wei sits on the CMC and the CCP Central Committee, but unlike Generals Xu and Zhang, is not on the 25-member Politburo (Gov.cn, March 19, 2018). As Kenneth Allen, Philip Saunders and Jonathan Chen note in a 2017 U.S. National Defense University (NDU) report on Chinese military diplomacy, the MND’s main role is “representing military equities and liaising with the State Council in areas of overlapping concern (including foreign policy).” [1] Despite the MND’s circumscribed function, it has carved out a role in military diplomacy, which is interfacing with foreign defense establishments and elites. The Minister of Defense serves as the PRC’s top military representative in most meetings with foreign defense chiefs, and in multilateral defense dialogues. Of these engagements, perhaps the most high-touch interactions are with the defense chiefs of other major military powers, the U.S. and Russia.

Navigating the PRC’s defense bureaucracy has sometimes frustrated foreign interlocutors. Shortly after taking office, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin sought for months to arrange a meeting with CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the PLA, in order to open lines of communications and establish guardrails for military-military interactions in an increasingly tense Indo-Pacific security environment. However, these requests were repeatedly rebuffed by the PRC on protocol grounds (Straits Times, June 1). The U.S. side was operating from the premise that the Secretary of Defense and CMC Vice Chairman are functionally equivalent in rank and role, but the PRC insisted that any discussions be held at the ministerial level. The Pentagon eventually relented, and Secretary Austin and Minister Wei met on the sidelines of this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore (People’s Daily, June 11).

Beyond Shangri-La

The PRC has sent high-level delegations to the Shangri-La Dialogue since 2007 (CGTN, May 31, 2019). Although China is a long-time dialogue participant,  the representatives of the PLA have not always been comfortable in what is considered a pro-Western forum, especially in Beijing’s more hawkish circles (Global Times, October 22, 2019). During this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue, the domestic edition of Global Times published a screenshot of a tweet from Olivia Enos, an Asia policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., claiming that the Chinese delegation had left Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s virtual address to the forum (Huanqiu,  June 12). The article noted that the PRC delegation actually did not attend Zelenskyy’s speech due to conflicting meetings (likely not a coincidence). However, the piece also accused Enos of being “the first to spread rumors and slander,” despite her subsequent deletion of the tweet and acknowledgement that she was mistaken.

Last week, Qin Gang, the PRC Ambassador to the U.S., participated in a “fireside chat” at the Aspen Security Forum, which coincided with the news of U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi’s planned visit to Taiwan in August. Qin did not directly address the visit, but warned that the only way to avert conflict in the Taiwan Straits was through “peaceful reunification,” stressed the need to restrain Taiwan “separatist forces” and urged Washington to stop undermining the One China Principle (Embassy of the PRC in the U.S., July 22; The Aspen Institute- YouTube, July 20). At the same time, Ambassador Qin sought to reassure the mostly American audience that there is a “misunderstanding of China-Russia relations,” acknowledging that while Beijing and Moscow share common views on “democracy, security, development and world order,” their “relationship is not an alliance,”

Security Dialogues Organized by the PRC

China is certain to continue its high-level participation in international defense summits and dialogues, even those hosted by rivals such as the United States. Nevertheless, the PRC also clearly derives discrete benefits from organizing its own security dialogues, the most prominent of which is Beijing Xiangshan forum (Beijing Xiangshan Forum; China Brief, November 19, 2019). The forum, which was launched by the China Association for Military Science (subordinate to the PLA Academy of Military Science) in 2006, began as a Track 2 mechanism for Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue. In 2014, the dialogue was upgraded to a track 1.5 dialogue including defense officials and senior military officers (the table below provides a preliminary list of the current high-level security dialogues that are organized or co-organized by the PRC).

How does China benefit from organizing its own international security forums? First, these meetings provide a platform for Chinese officials and government experts to act on Xi’s directive to “tell the China story well” (讲好中国故事, jiang hao zhongguo gushi) (China Media Project, April 16, 2021). A key element of these efforts is “strengthening the agenda setting” (加强议题设置, jiaqiang yiti shezi) capability of the CCP (QSTheory.cn, July 21, 2020). Agenda setting applies not only to domestic affairs, but also to foreign policy. In its diplomatic relations, the PRC seeks to overcome the “China threat theory” and assure a global audience that China is a peaceful power, true to its stated objectives of building a “community of common destiny for humanity” through the BRI and other initiatives. Organizing multilateral conferences (which includes the opportunity to develop a theme, set an itinerary and select speakers) provides an excellent opportunity for the PRC to be an “agenda-setter” in international politics.

In addition to their messaging value, security dialogues play an important role in military diplomacy, particularly the cultivation of ties with foreign military elites. For the PLA, these engagements compliment other elements of military diplomacy, including joint training and exercises, port calls and delegation visits, and foreign military education at the PLA National Defense University and other defense colleges.

 

High-Level Multilateral Security Dialogues Organized or Co-Organized by the PRC [2]
Forum Name Organizer (Italics= Non-PRC) Years Held Most Recent Conference and Themes Notable Participants in Most Recent Iteration
Beijing Xiangshan Forum (北京香山论坛) China Association for Military Science (subordinate to the PLA Academy of Military Science) and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (PRC Foreign Ministry- affiliated think tank) 2006, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2018, 2019, 2021  2021: “Pursue Win-Win Cooperation, Advance Global Security Governance” CMC Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang; Defense Ministers of China, Russia, Egypt, Vietnam, Nepal, Serbia, Cambodia, Rwanda, Kazakhstan, Belarus
World Peace Forum (世界和平论坛) Tsinghua University and the China People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs (an arm of the PRC foreign ministry that acts as a think tank/mechanism for personnel exchanges)  . The forum is “held under the approval” of the PRC State Council. 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022 2022: “Preserving International Stability: Commonality, Comprehensiveness and Cooperation.” Wang Chao, President of the Chinese People’s Institute of Foreign Affairs;  Yan Xuetong, Tsinghua Professor and Secretary-General of the World Peace Forum; Yukio Hatoyama, Prime Minister of Japan (2009-2010); Ban Ki-moon, Secretary-General of the UN (2007-2016); Kevin Rudd, Prime Minister of Australia (2007-2010, 2013), Dominique de Villepin, President of France (2005-2007); Igor Ivanov, President of the Russian International Affairs Council
ASEAN-China Defence Ministers’ Informal Meeting (中国—东盟国防部长非正式会晤视频会议) Ministry of National Defense; ASEAN Secretariat 13 meetings held since 2015 June 22, 2022: N/A Defense Ministers from China and the Ten Association of Southeast Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries
China-EU Defense and Security Policy Dialogue (中国与欧盟防务安全政策对话) Central Military Commission (CMC), Office of International Military Cooperation; European External Action Service (EEAS) 12th iteration held in 2022
China-Africa Peace and Security Forum (中非和平安全论坛) Ministry of National Defense 2019, 2022 2022: “Strengthening Solidarity and Cooperation to Achieve Common Security” Defense Minister Wei Fenghe; 50 ministerial leaders and high-level representatives from the African Union and Africa
China-Horn of Africa Peace, Governance and Development Conference(中国—非洲之角和平会议) Ministry of Foreign Affairs 2022 Special Envoy for Horn of Africa Affairs Xue Bing; PRC Ambassador to Ethiopia; Senior Diplomats from Ethiopia, Djibouti, Somalia, Kenya, Uganda, Sudan and South Sudan

Conclusion

The pattern through which new initiatives take shape in the PRC system is for top leadership to first introduce a broad concept (or concepts) that provides a general policy framework (e.g. Xi’s proposal for a “new Silk Road” in 2013). Then, the relevant party and state bureaucracies respond to the leader’s directive by laying out plans and undertaking specific actions in their respective areas of responsibility to implement the initiative. The Global Security Initiative appears to be following this trajectory. Now that Xi has articulated that the initiative is a means to build a “balanced, sustainable and effective” international security architecture, the bureaucracy is developing specific measures to actualize this vision. Based on the toolkit that China has used to establish other multilateral initiatives, as well as the prioritization of PLA diplomacy within the PRC’s overall foreign policy efforts, a Global Security Forum or Dialogue in Beijing appears inevitable.

John S. Van Oudenaren is Editor-in-Chief of China Brief. For any comments, queries, or submissions, please reach out to him at: [email protected].

Notes

[1] Kenneth Allen, Philip Saunders and Jonathan Chen, “Chinese Military Diplomacy, 2003–2016,”, China Strategic Perspectives (Washington, D.C.,:NDU Press), July 11 2017), https://ndupress.ndu.edu/Portals/68/Documents/stratperspective/china/ChinaPerspectives-11.pdf?ver=2017-07-17-153301-093

[2] Information in the table is derived from the following sources: Tsinghua University; PRC Ministry of Defense; PRC Foreign Ministry; Xiangshan Forum Website; 81.cn; Xinhuanet; People’s Daily Online; China Military Online; Global Times; Forum on China-Africa Cooperation