The Xiangshan Forum and Emerging Themes in PRC Military Diplomacy

Participants at the Ninth Beijing Xiangshan Forum, held from October 20-22 in the Beijing International Convention Center. The Xiangshan Forum is an annual conference that plays an important role in the PRC’s broader efforts in military diplomacy and security-related propaganda. (Source: Xinhua)

Introduction: The Beijing Xiangshan Forum and the PRC’s International Security Propaganda

In October, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) hosted two events that illustrated the PRC’s continuing and expanding efforts in the field of military diplomacy. The first of these was the seventh Military World Games, which opened on October 18 in the city of Wuhan (Xinhua, October 18). The second major event was the ninth meeting of the Beijing Xiangshan Forum (北京香山论坛, Beijing Xiangshan Luntan), held in the Chinese capital from October 20-22. The Xiangshan conference, first held in 2006, has become a prominent component of the PRC’s security-oriented propaganda efforts directed to international audiences. PRC state press has called the event one “created on the principles of equality, openness, inclusiveness and mutual learning,” and noted that “multilateral platforms like the Xiangshan Forum [are] very important for China’s military diplomacy” (China Daily, November 1).

The Xiangshan Forum is sponsored by the China Association for Military Science (subordinate to the PLA Academy of Military Science) and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (a state think tank affiliated with the PRC Foreign Ministry) (Xiangshan Forum, undated). PRC media claimed attendance at this year’s event by over 1,300 people from “76 official delegations” from around the world (Xinhua, October 21). The conference included a range of academics and military officials, as well as defense ministers (or vice ministers) from countries to include: Afghanistan, Brazil, Cambodia, Egypt, Malaysia, Nepal, North Korea, Russia, Rwanda, Serbia, Singapore, and Vietnam. Representatives from international organizations also participated, including the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the United Nations, and the International Red Cross (Xiangshan Forum, undated).

U.S. Participation in the Xiangshan Forum

The United States was represented at the conference by Chad Sbragia, the first person to hold the newly-created position of Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense (DASD) for China. In response to questions regarding whether or not the United States was seeking to “decouple” its economy from that of China, DASD Sbragia denied that this was the case, and stated that U.S. policy was to “rebalance and right relationships to ensure that we have equity… it’s actually in some ways [intended to] deepen those relationships.” He further asserted that “the United States will not ask any country to choose between Washington and Beijing… That’s not how the logic of our framework, our approach, is set” (Reuters, October 21).

Amidst harsher statements about the PRC made in October by U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence and U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (C-SPAN, October 24; U.S. State Department, October 30), this more conciliatory tone was welcomed in PRC state media. In one commentary, Li Zheng, a research fellow with the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (associated with the Ministry of State Security), praised Sbragia’s comments as representing “the rational voice of the U.S. military.” Li further opined that DASD Sbragia’s comments indicated that “the U.S. military has been more rational in China policy than the U.S. Department of State [or] Commerce” (CGTN, October 23).

Major Propaganda Themes from the Xiangshan Forum

Giving a Greater Voice to Smaller Countries in Security Affairs

Beijing has at times in the past run roughshod over its neighbors in international meetings, as when PRC Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi reportedly told his counterparts at the 2010 ASEAN Regional Forum that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries and that is just a fact” (SCMP, December 1, 2018). However, a major theme of this year’s Xiangshan Forum was that China wished to provide a greater voice in security affairs to smaller countries that have heretofore exercised lesser influence in established fora. The official China Daily cited a conference spokesman to comment that the forum was “a key platform for defense officials, especially from small and medium-sized countries, to voice their opinions, build strategic trust with peers and find common ground for cooperation” (China Daily, November 1). Similarly, the Global Times quoted a conference official as stating that “Many non-Western countries and victims of U.S. hegemony have no chance to express their dissatisfaction at forums in Munich or Shangri-La, which are dominat[ed] by the West, and have finally found a fair platform to speak and express themselves” (Global Times, October 22).

PRC state press actively touted the statements of visiting foreign officials in support of this theme, and to promote the benefits of security cooperation with China. Cambodian Minister of Defense Tea Banh was quoted as stating that “competition between big nations can often sacrifice the interests of smaller nations… Yet China has maintained a fair and cooperative relationship with other Southeast Asian countries regardless of their size” (China Daily, November 1). Serbian Minister of Defense Aleksandar Vulin, also visiting Beijing for the event, was quoted as stating that “in [Serbia’s] dialogue and cooperation with the PRC, we never feel the difference in size or power…the People’s Republic of China has shown that it is a peace-loving country, that it doesn’t have any territorial pretensions, that it doesn’t want anything from anyone, and strongly advocates the international law” (Belt and Road News, October 24).

Standing Up to the “Big Stick Policy” of U.S. Hegemony

Such a positive role for China was contrasted at the forum with a strongly negative view of the policies of the United States. Despite repeated protestations that “Beijing is not organizing an anti-U.S. forum” at Xiangshan, official coverage asserted that “many representatives from different countries voiced their dissatisfaction and anger at Washington’s unilateral and hegemonic behavior, [and thus] the U.S. should rethink its inappropriate policies that have offended many in the world.” PRC state media accounts focused on a host of criticisms of U.S. policy reportedly made by conference attendees, to include defense officials from Cuba, Serbia, and Belarus (Global Times, October 22).

PRC officials themselves used the forum to criticize U.S. policies more directly. In his opening address to the conference, PRC Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe (魏凤和)—a figure whose position involves little real authority over the armed forces, but is instead focused on military diplomacy—repeated once more many of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s standard accusations against an unnamed country, clearly understood to be the United States. He addressed alleged U.S. covert aggression by stating:

[T]o interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, to incite “color revolutions,” even to the point of subverting other countries’ lawful governments, this is the true source of war, chaos, and upheaval in regions [of the world]… In fact, a “big stick policy” (大棒政策, da bang zhengce) and “long arm jurisdiction” (长臂管辖, changbi guanxia) cannot solve any problem, and [when using] sanctions to exert pressure it is hard to achieve the objective—and the Chinese people will not let themselves be pushed around, and are not afraid of this. [1]

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu (left) and PRC Defense Minister Wei Fenghe (right) appear on stage together at the opening session of the Xiangshan Forum. (Source: Global Times)

The PRC’s Positive Role in Multilateral International Security (and the Declining Role of the United States)

A third prominent theme was that the PRC is working to uphold the international security order—and by clear implication, that it is doing so in contrast with U.S. neglect of (or active undermining of) that same international order. PRC Defense Minister Wei Fenghe touted the PRC’s positive contributions to international security as demonstrated by its commitment of 40,000 troops to United Nations peacekeeping missions, its naval patrols in the Gulf of Aden, and its range of joint exercises with more than 30 countries (Chinamil.com.cn, October 22). Such efforts were part of China’s dedication “to advancing cooperation through dialogue, and promoting peace through cooperation” (China.org.cn, October 21). In case anyone might miss the point, official media commentary noted that “while the U.S. was distancing itself from multilateral systems, China [has] always promoted multilateral cooperation and multilateralism” (Global Times, October 22).

In its efforts to promote this message, the PRC has been granted openings by the U.S. Government. The most prominent recent example was the U.S. failure to provide any high-level political representation to the 35th ASEAN Summit, held from October 31 – November 5 in Bangkok. U.S. President Donald Trump declined to attend, and the U.S. delegation was instead represented in meetings by National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien. (Premier Li Keqiang attended the ASEAN Summit on behalf of the PRC.) A side meeting was arranged on November 4 between O’Brien and ASEAN leaders, but in an apparent diplomatic snub, only summit host Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha of Thailand, and the prime ministers of Vietnam and Laos, took part; other ASEAN member states were represented by their foreign ministers (AP, November 4; ASEAN 2019, November 4).

As a result of the U.S. diplomatic retreat from multilateral initiatives in Asia, PRC representatives were not the only ones to criticize the United States at the Xiangshan Forum. Singapore Minister of Defense Ng Eng Hen made a speech before the conference in which he criticized the “America First” posture of the Trump Administration, and stated that the United States was “no longer the prime architect and champion of multilateralism” in either international trade or security affairs (Singapore Ministry of Defense, October 22).

Conclusion: The Continuing Effort to Create an Alternative International Security Order

The theme of this year’s Xiangshan Forum, as offered in the official English slogan, was “Maintaining International Order and Preserving Peace in the Asia-Pacific” (维护国际秩序, 共筑亚太和平 / Weihu Guoji Zhixu, Gong Zhu Yatai Heping) (People’s Daily Overseas Edition, October 23). However, a more literal translation of the second Chinese phrase would be “Building Peace in the Asia-Pacific Together”—a subtle but significant difference, for it implies creating a new order rather than maintaining one already in existence.

This is expressive of the broader purpose of the Xiangshan Forum and other elements of the PRC’s expanding efforts in military diplomacy. Through such initiatives, Beijing aspires to build an alternative international security order in Asia: one in which China plays the central role, and “hegemonic” powers such as the United States are sidelined; the governments of smaller countries are recruited into new international alignments under PRC leadership; PRC territorial ambitions are secured; and an absolute premium is placed on state sovereignty (as defined by the CCP). Beneath the veneer of language about multilateralism and international cooperation, the PRC’s military diplomacy is successfully advancing, by gradual degrees, a geopolitical environment and security norms more amenable to Beijing’s ever-expanding list of international interests.

John Dotson is the editor of China Brief. Contact him at: [email protected].

Notes

[1] “Wei Fenghe: The Land Left to Us by Our Ancestors, We Cannot Lose an Inch of It” [魏凤和:老祖宗留下来的土地,我们一寸也不能丢], People’s Daily, Oct. 21, 2019. http://www.hinews.cn/news/system/2019/10/21/032198310.shtml. [Original text: “干涉他国内政,煽动“颜色革命”,甚至颠覆别国合法政权,是造成地区战乱动荡的真正乱源… 事实上,“大棒政策”“长臂管辖”解决不了任何问题,制裁施压也很难达到目的,中国人不吃这一套,也不怕这套.”] Translation by the author.