China plans to send a team of top diplomats to Asia's premier security forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue, in an attempt to fend off increasing criticism of its assertive role in the region, Chinese scholars and the event's organiser said.
This would be the first time Beijing has sent foreign ministry officials to the security-focused event, which opens tomorrow. A foreign policy adviser to the Chinese government said the move was in response to China's deteriorating relationships with the United States and its regional neighbours. Former deputy foreign minister Fu Ying will lead the diplomats, said William Choong, a Shangri-La Dialogue senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security. "There is a broader participation from China this year," Choong said.
The size and seniority of the diplomatic corps has not been made public. The foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment.
Fu, known for her sharp tongue and robust defence skills, has left the foreign ministry and now chairs the Foreign Affairs Committee of China's National People's Congress. She attended the Shangri-La Dialogue last year.
On the defence side, Deputy Chief of General Staff Wang Guanzhong would lead a delegation of 11 from the People's Liberation Army, Choong said.
Several participants of last year's forum said China had changed its approach from being observers to more active engagement by asking robust questions and defending its own position.
Fu and other professional diplomats this year could help the Chinese delegation put forward "more professional" arguments in defending China's position, said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University.
"China faces a more intense and complex environment," Shi said, referring to increasing tensions with the US, Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines.
"China hopes to send a stronger and more eloquent delegation. The diplomats will be more professional in defending China's foreign policy."
One likely source of heated debate will be Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's keynote speech at the forum. US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel will also deliver remarks, according to the US defence department.
China has squared off with its neighbours over disputed waters. Its relationship with Washington also hit a rough patch after President Barack Obama's recent visit to Asia and a decision by US prosecutors to charge five Chinese military officers over cyberespionage.