Column  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2013.07.01

Security Talks with China (Shangri-la Dialogue)

I attended the 12th IISS* Asia Security Summit in Singapore (Shangri-la Dialogue 2013), which took place from May 31 to June 2. Over three hundred people participated in the conference. Nguen Tan Dun, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, delivered the keynote address. Other Asian countries, such as Japan and South Korea, were represented by their defense ministers, while Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo, Deputy Chief of the General Staff, People's Liberation Army, represented China. In addition to the Asian countries, representatives from the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, France, Germany, Great Britain, Sweden, and EU also were in attendance.

The Dialogue is, in actuality, an opportunity for China and the international community to engage in a dialogue about security. It was my impression that not just half but a full two-thirds of the debate had China in mind, whether directly or indirectly. There were not much commendation for China's military strategy or action; many were more or less critical of it but Lieutenant General Qi had a ready response to all questions raised.

Throughout, the exchange of views was both frank and lively. When the Prime Minister of Vietnam directed certain remarks toward China - "to build strategic trust, we ourselves need to abide by international law, to uphold the responsibilities of nations, especially of major powers" - the female Major General of China's PLA, by way of response, asked "can you cite some concrete examples where freedom of navigation is violated by what international law?"

In his speech, Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo asserted: "Although recently hot-spot issues in China's neighboring area keep cropping up, we have always held that conflicts and disputes should be properly solved through dialogues, consultations and peaceful negotiations." This statement prompted a question from the audience to the effect that the actions of the Chinese military had led to a growing skepticism in the region regarding China's stated commitment to peace. Lieutenant General Qi responded that "in the last 30 years, almost all the powers in the world have been involved in war, or used armed forces. However, China is the only exception. In the last 30 years, China did not whip up any war or military conflict with its armed forces. This can be effectively proven by the real actions of China in maintaining peace in these 30 years." He also claimed that "the Chinese government has made a clear statement to present the core interests of China. There is no change to this statement, and it is a stand we have been sticking to." As for the question "why is China opposed to using arbitration mechanisms," he responded that China's policy is to solve issues through equal bilateral dialogue and negotiation, and that only in this way, nations can seek for a more harmonious and cooperative method to solve disputes.  As for nuclear weapons, he reiterated China's position that "the Chinese government will never abandon the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, which has been maintained for half a century," and that "if you read carefully our White Paper, you can find that we have mentioned how to implement the principle of no first use."

There was nothing new to Lieutenant General Qi's remarks and it is hard to imagine that non-Chinese participants evaluated his remarks positively. The IISS Dialogues, however, are important public fora for people from defense, academia and the media to exchange views with China's high-level military personnel and their importance appears to be increasing year after year.

For China, the Dialogues are an opportunity to show that it attaches importance to Southeast Asia, and it allows China to take the steam out of others by letting them criticize the PLA, notwithstanding that it itself must face criticisms. For this reason, China continues to send high level officials to the Dialogues. China even stated that it may restart sending its defense minister to the Dialogues.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel emphasized the importance of cooperating with allies and noted the rebalancing of the U.S. military in accordance with budget cuts in the U.S. military. As for China, his overall tone remained positive, stating the need for China to contribute to regional security and to U.S.-China military cooperation, while warning that "the United States stands firmly against any coercive attempts to alter the status quo." He added that "The United States has expressed our concerns about the growing threat of cyber intrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military."

The U.S. delegation was the largest at the Dialogues, with 43 members (followed by Japan and Australia, each with 19, and China, with 17), indicating its keen interest in the Dialogue. The delegation included 12 uniformed military personnel, none of whom expressed views during the plenary sessions, but one imagines that they were quite active at the Dialogue elsewhere.

Japan's Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera explained the Abe government's determination to "bring back a strong Japan" while emphasizing that Japan is not tilting toward the "right". He explained that consecutive Japanese governments have humbly acknowledged that Japan caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, expressed deep remorse and genuine apologies. I'd like to note that this explanation prompted a number of participants to offer their praise.

As for the Senkaku islands, Lieutenant General Qi stuck to the Chinese line that "more than 20 years ago, our great leader Mr Deng Xiaoping proposed in his great political wisdom that since the issue of Diaoyu Islands could not be solved for the moment, and our future generations are more intelligent than us, we should be patient enough and leave the issue to be solved by the future generations." Certain media outlets interpreted this statement as suggesting that China had expressed an interest in "shelving" the issue.

As for those scholars who had published opinions in Chinese newspapers that question the sovereignty of the Okinawa Islands, Lieutenant General Qi responded "please be assured that the position of the Chinese government remains unchanged," and he indicated that China was not interested in expanding the debate to Okinawa. At the same time, he stated, "the Diaoyu Islands are different from the Ryukyu Islands and Okinawa Islands in nature" and that "The Treaty of San Francisco was signed without the presence of a representative of the Chinese government," therefore, the Chinese government does not have to abide by it, in essence, denying the legal position of the Japanese government.

* International Institute for Strategic Studies