Bottomline | China’s Military Diplomacy

With the 6th Xiangshan Forum, Beijing reaches out to the Asian countries

Pravin SawhneyPravin Sawhney

Having learnt the lessons of history and sensitive to the present day reality of a globalised world, China has adopted a novel multi-pronged approach to change the rules of strategic interaction in order to assert its peaceful rise as part of President Xi Jinping’s China Dream.

With a theme of ‘Asia for Asians’, it has sought a new major-power partnership with the United States (US) with the ultimate aim of reducing Washington’s influence amongst the developing world and by emerging as the most benevolent, and if you will, the dominant power in the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean Region.

China’s grand strategy to emerge as the major power in Asia and ultimately in the world could be understood from Zbigniew Brzezinski’s perspective in his book, ‘The Grand Chessboard.’ He writes: ‘History has predisposed the Chinese elite to think of China as the natural center of the world. In fact, the Chinese word for China — Chung Kuo, or the Middle Kingdom — both conveys the notion of China’s centrality in world affairs and reaffirms the importance of national unity. That perspective also implies a hierarchical radiation of influence from the center to the peripheries, and thus China as the center expects deference from others.’ In short, revival of tributary system befitting an imperial state.

With deep pockets, China is, on the one hand, seeking early reforms of the economic institutions like the World Bank and the IMF set up after the Second World War under the US’ guidance. On the other hand, it is setting up its own institutions — AIIB, One-Belt-One-Road, New Development Bank or BRICS bank and so on — to attract the developing world with fast growing economies.

On the security front, China is determined not to relent on territories which it considers historically belong to it. It hopes to do so not by actual fighting but through military coercion and military diplomacy. In this context, the coming 6th Xiangshan Forum to be held in Beijing from October 16 to 18 — part of China’s military diplomacy — will provide a high level dialogue on security and defence issues in the Asia-Pacific region.

The Xiangshan Forum has transformed from the original version in 2006 which was an event meant for scholars to interact with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) on security issues every alternate year. The format was altered with the 5th Xiangshan Forum in 2014 when it was upgraded to a semi-official (Track 1.5 in scholars’ parlance) event to be held annually. According to reports, 20 officials at or above deputy defence ministers’ level, and representatives from 40 countries in East Asia, Central Asia, the Middle East, and four international organisations participated in the deliberations.

The 6th Xiangshan Forum organised by the China Institute for International Strategic Studies and the China Association for Military Sciences affiliated to the PLA is more ambitious. Invitations have been sent to numerous defence ministers, senior government and military officials and leading scholars across the Asia-Pacific region. The forum ‘aims to discuss security developments and hot spot issues, promote exchange and cooperation, and contribute to peace and stability in the region under the theme Security and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific: Realities and Visions.’ I, too, have been invited to this year’s Forum.

The agenda for two-day interactions includes security and responsibilities of major countries in the Asia-Pacific; ASEAN community building; regional counter-terrorism cooperation; security of sea lanes of communication; code of conduct in cyberspace; cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations; and roles of think tanks in Asia-Pacific security cooperation.

Given the expansive sweep of topics for discussions, China hopes to both understand and influence the way forward without compromising on its core security issues. According to the official communication, ‘Chinese national leaders, leaders from the Central Military Commission, ministry of national defence and foreign affairs are expected to attend the Forum.’ Without doubt, issues pertaining to South and East China Seas, US’ re-balancing, China’s recent military strategy and white paper, freedom of Seas will be on the table. It is no accident that China has convened ASEAN defence ministers meeting in Beijing to coincide with the Forum dates.

China had invited defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, to the Forum. He declined the invitation. The junior minister, V.K. Singh is instead expected to participate in the deliberations. This is unfortunate as India has missed the opportunity to lend weight to its preference for international rules and norms and freedom of seas especially in the disputed South China Sea. Doing so would have added credibility to the joint vision document for Asia-Pacific region between India and the US, the recently held deliberations between foreign ministers of India, US and Japan in New York, and the naval diplomacy in Western Pacific that the Modi government has boldly embarked upon.


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