Taiwan in Focus at the Shangri-La Dialogue

Publication: China Brief Volume: 24 Issue: 13

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III meets with Peoples Republic of China Minister of Defense, Adm. Dong Jun in Singapore, May 31, 2024. (DVIDS, May 31)

Executive Summary:

  • PRC Defense Minister Dong Jun’s experience in international military exchanges allowed him to showcase a blend of assertiveness in his speeches and a congenial rapport with foreign journalists during his appearance at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
  • The Dialogue saw a notable emphasis on Taiwan in the PRC delegation’s remarks, with officials seeking to play down the “China threat” narrative despite recent Joint Sword 2024A exercises surrounding the island.
  • Dong reiterated the position that Taiwan independence and external interference constitute red lines that the PRC is prepared to defend by force if necessary, indicating Beijing’s primary objective at the dialogue was to project a resolute stance against foreign interference to audiences both international and domestic.

Admiral Dong Jun (董军), Minister of National Defense for the People’s Republic of China (PRC), recently engaged in formal discussions with United States Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at the annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore (MND, May 31). This was their first face-to-face meeting since 2022. The dialogue was predictable, with both parties adhering strictly to their respective viewpoints. It was also largely symbolic as a channel for military diplomacy, as the minister has a peripheral role within the PRC’s overall military command structure. Dong’s and others’ comments on Taiwan were particularly noteworthy, especially in the context of recent military exercises and increased gray-zone activities since the inauguration of President Lai Ching-te (賴清德) in January.

It is noteworthy that the PRC is demonstrating a proactive approach toward media engagement, convening multiple press conferences and showcasing a well-prepared public relations strategy. In this sense, it was relatively more active than that the United States at the Dialogue (US DOD, June 1). Dong’s speech on June 2 highlighted the PRC’s intention to employ a dual strategy of both assertive and diplomatic measures with the aim of projecting and reinforcing the PRC’s desired image of itself as a major global power (YouTube/IISS, June 3).

The PRC’s Evolving Representation at the Shangri-La Dialogue

International fora provide a platform for the PRC to voice its discontent in targeted ways. For instance, during this year’s conference, Senior Colonel Cao Yanzhong (曹延忠) from the Academy of Military Sciences asked Secretary Austin whether the United States was attempting to establish an “Asian NATO.” He followed this by asserting that “NATO’s eastward expansion led to the Ukraine crisis” and questioned what impact the strengthening of the US alliance system in the Asia-Pacific would have on regional security and stability (DVIDS, May 31).

Over years of participating in international and regional fora, PRC representatives have become adept at navigating the public diplomatic landscape. They skillfully use speeches and pointed questions to increase military transparency and assert the PRC’s positions in front of a global audience. Simultaneously, these actions also serve to fuel domestic propaganda, reinforcing the government’s stance within the PRC. This approach ensures that the PRC’s international posturing also resonates within its borders, seamlessly packaging their narrative for domestic consumption.

The PRC has participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue since 2007, where it has traditionally been represented by deputy chiefs of the General Staff such as Ma Xiaotian (马晓天), Wang Guanzhong (王冠中), Qi Jianguo (戚建国), and Sun Jianguo (孙建国). In 2011, then-Defense Minister Liang Guanglie (梁光烈) led the delegation—the highest-level PRC official to attend. In 2012, the delegation was downgraded, led by then-Vice President of the Academy of Military Sciences Ren Haiquan (任海泉). This was likely due to preparations for the 18th Party Congress later that year and concerns over domestic reactions to discussions about the PRC’s actions in the South China Sea (SCS). Subsequent years saw a return to the norm of delegations led by deputy chiefs of the General Staff, with occasional deviations such as the attendance of Lieutenant General He Lei (何雷), Vice President of the Academy of Military Sciences, in 2017 and 2018.

Since 2019, the PRC delegation has been led by the Minister of National Defense. In 2019, the minister was Wei Fenghe (魏凤和), a former member of the Rocket Force and a quintessential field officer. His interactions with journalists were marked by a forthright military demeanor. Once the Dialogue was resumed in 2022 following the pandemic, his successor Li Shangfu (李尚福) led the delegation. Unlike Wei Fenghe, Li’s background primarily in the General Armaments Department and the Xichang Satellite Launch Center endowed him with extensive technological expertise. However, his lack of experience in high-level military diplomacy raised concerns about his ability to effectively engage with foreign military officials. This year, Minister Dong Jun’s extensive experience in international military exchanges allowed him to showcase a blend of assertiveness in his speeches and a congenial rapport with foreign journalists (see China Brief, February 2). This is likely a product of a career in the PLA Navy, which is traditionally tasked with diplomatic missions. For instance, among his more strident official statements, a more casual side of the man was on display while engaging with American journalists (BRTV, May 31). No doubt premeditated, at one point while cleaning his glasses he chatted to the press pack about panda diplomacy in relatively friendly terms. This reinforces the view that, at least on the surface, the PRC has shifted away from “wolf warrior diplomacy” since the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference last December (China Brief, April 12). This dual approach, combining firmness with diplomatic engagement, indicates that Dong will likely be a more effective minister in charge of military diplomacy.

Aims to Mitigate Perceptions of the ‘China Threat’

The Shangri-La Dialogue took place immediately following PRC’s Joint Sword-2024A military exercise and amid ongoing clashes between the PRC and the Philippines in the SCS (MND, May 23; Manila Times, June 4). The PRC delegation was therefore scrutinized heavily during the Dialogue. For the PRC, the Dialogue presented an opportunity to articulate its positions, justify its military maneuvers, and counter the prevailing “China threat” narrative that frames the PRC as the principal destabilizing force in the region, seeking to replace the United States as the hegemonic power (China’s Diplomacy in the New Era, April 8). By expressing its intent to continue dialogue with the United States, bridge differences, and advocate for shared regional prosperity and strategic autonomy, the PRC intended to frame itself as morally superior to the United States and to belie the “China threat” narrative. In so doing, the PRC hopes to encourage states in the region to move toward genuine multilateral cooperation rather than aligning with the United States’ minilateralism.

In his address, Admiral Dong invoked solidarity with developing countries, emphasizing the shared anti-hegemonic and anti-colonial histories of the PRC and its neighbors (IISS, June 2). Near the top of his remarks, he appeared to invoke the ancient Chinese aphorism that “a close neighbor is better than a distant relative (远亲不如近邻),” noting that these countries have “worked in solidarity to resist aggression, fight disasters, and pursue development. We wish each other well as neighbors just as members of a family do.” He also proposed concrete strategies to support weaker nations, aiming to create a vision of shared governance, particularly in Southeast Asia, under the guise of equality (IISS, June 2).

The PRC delegation also interacted with representatives from various countries while at the Dialogue, signaling a potential return to the proactive foreign diplomacy observed around 2014 when the PRC invested more in UN Peacekeeping operations (National Institute for Defense Studies, March 2015). The overarching aim of these interactions was not merely military diplomacy but also to dilute the “China threat” narrative. Specifically, the PRC sought to clarify that its military exercises targeting Taiwan were solely focused on countering Taiwanese independence movements and did not pose a threat to other nations. This message was intended to reinforce the notion that so long as foreign countries refrain from interfering in the PRC’s domestic affairs, stability would be maintained. This delineation has consistently been a core aspect of the PRC’s international strategy.

Dueling Perceptions of Taiwan at the Dialogue

The Taiwan issue is the foundation of the “China Threat” narrative. The PRC stance on Taiwan was unequivocal throughout General Dong’s and Secretary Austin’s interactions, as well as in Dong’s plenary speech. Namely, that while the PRC is open to international consultation on regional stability in the SCS and other global issues, the Taiwan Strait remains an inviolable red line and non-negotiable with any foreign entity (MND, May 31). He framed DPP politicians as charlatans who would be “nailed to the pillar of shame in history,” and warned that the PLA would “remain a strong force for upholding national reunification.” He also urged East Asian countries to consider the implications carefully, stating that “anyone who dares to separate Taiwan from China will only end up in self-destruction” (IISS, June 2). During his speech, Dong ignored the moderator to repeatedly stress the Taiwan issue. Articles on PRC media platforms later unanimously criticized the moderator’s professionalism (China.com, June 4; CCTV, June 2). One, published by a senior journalist from Phoenix TV, analogized this behavior to the Western tradition of infringing upon PRC sovereignty through “hegemonic (霸道)” actions (Tencent, June 8).

The PRC has categorized the Lai administration as proponents of Taiwanese independence, asserting that Taiwan is at the heart of its core interests and that unification is inevitable (TAO, May 29). This rhetoric coupled with heightened military actions foreshadows increased pressure on Taiwan’s national security in the coming four years. The PRC has also emphasized to the United States that hard-won military to military communication is predicated on the latter respecting their core interests over the island. This is undoubtedly an attempt to tie continuing mil-mil dialogues to the Taiwan issue. It also sets a precondition for military exchanges with other countries.

Australian Defense Minister Richard Marles articulated a more nuance view on the PRC during a sideline discussion at the Dialogue (Australian Department of Defense, June 1). Marles acknowledged the recent stabilization of trade relations with the PRC but expressed strong dissatisfaction with its recent gray-zone activities in the SCS and its erosion of the status quo in the Taiwan Strait, citing the PLA’s “record number of incursions across the median line” so far this year. Indeed, the sequence of events, from Nauru severing diplomatic ties with Taiwan at the beginning of the year to the Joint Sword exercises, is indicative of the PRC’s sustained psychological and military pressure on Taiwan (US DOS, January 15). Marles also emphasized that the PRC should shoulder the burden of upholding existing international rules, arguing that the international order cannot develop in an environment “where sovereign rights and international law are ignored, especially by great powers.”

PLA representatives’ direct rebuttals to Marles’s remarks highlighted the tensions and indicated areas of disagreement as well as fundamental differences of understanding on the issues (IISS, June 1). One PLA officer confronted Marles on the SCS issue, saying that the PRC has the natural right to defend its national security. Another said there were at least two mistakes in Marles’s speech, first that “Taiwan is one province of China, and we will not endanger the Taiwan people’s security and life,” and second that he “didn’t mention that the Philippines, their ship, intentionally collided with China’s coast guard ships.” The Philippine government disputes this characterization of events. Australia nevertheless also expressed a willingness to engage with the PRC to prevent potential conflicts. This indicates a dual strategy of maintaining engagement while aligning with the United States’ strategy of military deterrence to counter any aggressive moves by the PRC.


Since President Lai’s election in January, the CCP has employed a series of psychological and physical intimidation measures against the island as part of a broader campaign by Beijing to undermine its sovereignty. Some actions appear to test Taiwan’s thresholds and policy responses, such as recent civilian drone incursions over its outlying islands and aggressive maneuvers by speedboats in the Tamsui river. These incidents, reminiscent of previous drone harassment, occur whenever Taiwan discusses adjustments to its Rules of Engagement (ROE) or First-Strike policies. Such gray-zone operations, designed to gauge Taiwan’s defensive responses, are among the multifaceted threats Taiwan faces beyond conventional PLA military exercises. Consequently, Taiwan must remain vigilant and adapt its defensive strategies to counter these evolving threats.

The Shangri-La Dialogue saw a notable emphasis on the Taiwan issue in the PRC delegation’s remarks. PLA officials reiterated the position that Taiwan independence and external interference constitute red lines that the PRC is prepared to defend by force if necessary. This rhetoric may not resonate universally on the international stage, but Beijing’s primary objective at the Dialogue was to project a resolute stance against foreign interference both internationally and domestically. This strategy was further bolstered by the attention garnered by the newly appointed Defense Minister Dong Jun, enabling Beijing to achieve its dual aims of boosting internal propaganda and external posturing, effectively concluding the narrative set by the Joint Sword 2024A exercises.