Beijing cancels its Shangri-La Dialogue rival, the Xiangshan Forum, to soothe neighbours

Major leadership reshuffles this year, clashes with other events, and a desire to allay fears of Asian neighbours cited as reasons

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 3:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 June, 2017, 11:09pm

Beijing’s annual high-level forum to discuss Asia-Pacific security and defence issues has been cancelled this year due to pressure at home and abroad, a military official familiar with the event told the South China Morning Post.

The Xiangshan Forum, held each September or early October and dubbed Asia’s “new security architecture” by Beijing to voice China’s view on regional disputes, will not be held this year, an official from the People’s Liberation Army Academy of Military Science, the key sponsor of the event, told the Post.

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The forum, started in 2006, has widely been seen as Beijing’s move to rival the Asia Security Forum in Singapore, also known as the Shangri-La Dialogue after the hotel venue where it is staged.

“The main reason is the Academy of Military Science will undergo a major reorganisation and leadership reshuffle as part of the ongoing military overhaul and the upcoming 19th party congress [later this year],” said the official, on the condition of anonymity.

“There are so many uncertainties at the military academy. For example, no one knows who will be its new president, and who will take care of foreign issues, and which departments will be cut.”

General Cai Yingting, the academy’s former president, was among 50 senior officers to leave their positions amid the massive military reshuffle, according to an exclusive report by the SCMP in January.

Another source close to the PLA said the cancelled decision was made three weeks ago because senior leaders of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which usually assisted hosting the event, were all occupied by several other big occasions such as the BRICS Summit in Xiamen, Fujian province, in September.

“The forum, which is co-organised by the Academy of Military Science and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies, was staged with the help of the foreign ministry in the past years,” the source said.

The forum will resume next year, the source said.

As a high-level platform to discuss Asian security and defence issues, the Xiangshan Forum was initially held every two years but was upgraded to an annual event in 2014.

It is widely believed the forum was designed to rival the Asia Security Forum in Singapore.

A Beijing-based retired senior colonel said Beijing wanted to downplay its miliary role this year to pacify its neighbours in the hope of attracting more support for “One Belt, One Road” initiatives of President Xi Jinping.

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“China realised that it should not frighten its Asian neighbours but create a stable security situation in Asia-Pacific that will help Beijing convince other small countries to join the Belt and Road initiatives,” the veteran, who also requested anonymity, told the Post.

The Xiangshan Forum has sparked controversy due to its role as a rival to the Shangri-la Dialogue.

Huang Jing, a professor and director of the Centre on Asia and Globalisation at the Lee K uan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, said that it was not appropriate for China to host a regional security forum.

“Regional security forums shouldn’t be launched by big powers, but small countries like Singapore,” Huang said.

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“China is now powerful enough to pose a security threat to other Asian countries in the region. Its involvement in territorial disputes in the East and South China seas with neighbouring countries cannot convince other Asian countries to join a sensitive discussion about regional security.”

Last year, the spat between China and Singapore over an international tribunal ruling against Beijing’s South China Sea claims, and Seoul’s decision to allow the staging on its soil of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system, overshadowed the Xiangshan forum.