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China-US relations

Are South China Sea and tensions with US still too hot to handle at Beijing security forum?

  • Panellists at Xiangshan Forum largely steer clear of sensitive subjects even though organisers hope it will become a leading international conference
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 27 October, 2018, 9:30pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 October, 2018, 9:14am

An annual conference that Beijing hopes will become Asia’s leading forum for discussing security issues had its largest-ever attendance this year – but organisers’ reluctance to let delegates discuss some of the key issues affecting the region highlighted the distance it needs to travel to surpass a similar gathering in Singapore.

Key issues such as the growing Sino-US rivalry were scarcely touched on at the main sessions of the two-day Xiangshan Forum, which ended on Friday.

Meanwhile discussion of the long-running territorial dispute in the South China Sea was confined to a plenary session that covered the broader topic of maritime security cooperation.

By contrast both issues are regularly discussed at the IISS Asia Security Summit in Singapore, known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, which Beijing hopes Xiangshan will supplant.

Only one of the military delegates invited to speak at the Xiangshan event – a representative from the Philippines – came from a country embroiled in the South China Sea disputes.

Many other foreign delegates included representatives of countries such as Sri Lanka, Ecuador, Pakistan – which have all expressed support for China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”.

The main public discussion of China’s relations with America came from two senior Beijing officials, Li Zhanshu, the chairman of the legislature, and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, both of whom were sharply critical of Washington.

Li, the third-highest-ranking official on the Politburo Standing Committee, used the welcoming dinner on the eve of the forum to denounce the White House for trying to build alliances to contain China.

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The following day Wei criticised an unnamed US senior official over allegations that China is interfering in US domestic politics, saying they had “seriously damaged Sino-US relations and mutual trust”.

Both US President Donald Trump and his vice-president Mike Pence have pointed the finger at Beijing in recent weeks, but Wei did not specify who his remarks were targeting.

Tensions between China and the US have been escalating since July, when both sides slapped tariffs on each others’ imports, and the dispute has since spilled over into other areas, including a near-collision between two warships in the South China Sea last month.

Li and Wei’s criticisms have been widely reported by overseas media, but in a sign of the sensitivities surrounding the topic, the Chinese media has not reported Li’s comments.

The English-language edition of the nationalist tabloid Global Times did repeat parts of Wei’s speech, but still steered clear of any mention of Li’s comments.

A local media source said Chinese journalists were exercising “self censorship” when it came to Li’s criticism of the US because they were not sure where the “red line” was on the topic.

“Our bosses don’t want to cause any trouble because it’s not clear whether there is a clear order from the central publicity department,” an editor from a local television station said in an interview.

Media sources have previously said that mainland journalists have been warned not to “over-report” the trade war, in some cases being told not to use the phrase “trade war” in headlines.

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Both Wei and Li also implicitly criticised the US over Taiwan, one of the most contentious issues between the two countries.

China regards the self-ruled island as a breakaway province that must ultimately be reunited with the mainland, by force if necessary.

Despite Beijing’s insistence that the issue is purely a domestic matter, Trump’s administration has stepped up its military support for the island.

In his speech on Thursday Wei said the Chinese military would act against anyone who tried to separate Taiwan from the mainland, adding that they would pay “whatever price has to be paid”.

It was the first time senior Chinese leaders had directly mentioned Taiwan at a forum of this type and, in contrast to his direct criticism of America, mainland Chinese media did report Wei’s comments on the island.

Gong Xianfu, vice-chairman of the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS), said that the difference between the two cases was that the authorities believed independence-leaning forces in Taiwan had been “using US power and influence to counter Beijing” and needed to be taught a lesson.

More than 500 representatives from 67 countries and seven organisations attended this year’s Xiangshan Forum, which was jointly organised by the CIISS and the PLA’s Academy for Military Science.

Of the 67 nations, 21 sent a defence minister or senior military commander, according to China’s defence ministry.

“It’s the biggest edition since we started organising the Xiangshan Forum in 2006. This year’s forum is the eighth, but it’s also the first since the PLA completed its unprecedented military overhaul,” said Zhao Xiaozhuo, director of the event’s secretariat’s office.

“We hope the Xiangshan Forum will become a real international security dialogue that is recognised by the international community.”

Attendees included a North Korean delegation, led by Colonel General Kim Hyong-ryong, who is the vice-minister of the People’s Armed Forces.

It was the first time North Korea had sent a senior military official to a regional security forum and Kim’s appearance on Thursday saw him surrounded by dozens of domestic and overseas journalists.

Other delegates praised the forum for giving them a chance to learn the views of Chinese officials and scholars.

Rajeev Ranjan Chaturvedy, a visiting fellow at S Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, said it had been possible to discuss US-China relations on the sidelines of the conference, adding he had been impressed by one seminar on the topic which had been attended by young Chinese military officers and academics.

“[The organisers] are trying to improve the quality of discussion … It’s quite positive for these kinds of intensive discussions,” he said.