Shangri-La Dialogue

China’s dialogue delegation better prepared and more at ease than last year

Top brass do away with spin doctors and go on charm offensive in their meetings with regional defence leaders and the world’s media

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 1:40am
UPDATED : Sunday, 05 June, 2016, 1:39am

Beijing’s delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue arrived much better-prepared and experienced than last year, with both top envoy Admiral Sun Jianguo and his colleagues appearing more relaxed and media friendly.

Just two hours after US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter accused China of being “provocative, destablising and self-isolating”, the Chinese delegation conducted separate press conferences for local and overseas media.

The media was surprised that both events were hosted by Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, director of Foreign Affairs Office at the PLA’s Central Military Commission. Guan is also a Chinese delegate at the regional security summit, and was there to take questions instead of Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun.

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Unlike Yang, who usually reads word by word from a prepared statement at media briefings, Guan gave unscripted answers , and was fluent and sharp in addressing US criticisms of China.

Last year, the Chinese delegation held a press conference on the final day of the forum after Admiral Sun delivered his speech.

This year, media officers from the Chinese delegation also approached overseas media to collect their contacts and called them to attend the two unscheduled press conferences.

In more than 10 bilateral meetings with regional defence ministers in the same conference room at the Shangri-La Hotel on Friday and Saturday, the smiling and polite Admiral Sun – the deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of the powerful Central Military Commission who also represented China last year – seemed more at ease with his counterparts this year.

“Can I give you a hug, my old friend?” Sun asked New Zealand Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee on Friday during their meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue.

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“Please speak first because your rank is senior to mine,” Sun told Brownlee.

Sun extends his habit allowing his counterparts to speak first during photo calls before the bilateral meetings as a gesture of respect, either addressing them as more senior in rank or age.

He even mocked himself to please his old friends.

“You still look as young as when we met last year, but I am getting older,” he told Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, chief of the Australian Defence Force.

During his meeting with Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov, Sun remarked how the 61-year-old army general’s “bright eyes” had impressed him at their first meeting at last year’s forum.

Sun will deliver a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue plenary session on Sunday.

Last year, a nervous and solemn Sun was criticised by foreign media for failing to address the key points of their questions.