The Seventh Xiangshan Forum
Lt General R K Sawhney, PVSM, AVSM, Centre Head & Senior Fellow, National Security and Strategic Studies & Internal Security Studies, VIF

The Trend of Confabulations

The Seventh ‘Xiangshan’ (literal meaning ‘Fragrant Hills’) Conference was held from 10 to 12 October 2016 at the Haidian District of Xiangshan near Beijing. The Xiangshan Forum is co-sponsored by China Academy of Military Science (CAMS) and China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS). The Xiangshan Forum is a platform established by the CAMS in 2006. The first four such Forums were positioned as a ‘Track-2’ communication platform between international defense personnel and academics and held every two years. In order to meet the growing demands of the changing security environment of the Asia Pacific, the biennial Forum has now been upgraded to ‘Track-1.5’ high level dialogue platform of security and defense in Asia and is held once a year since the 5th Xiangshan Forum held in 2014.

It is widely believed that the Xiangshan Forum has been designed to rival the Shangri-La Dialogue, an event launched in 2002 by the British think tank the ‘International Institute for Strategic Studies’ and the Singapore Government, and which found its name from the Shangri-La hotel in Singapore where the meeting is held.

The Seventh Xiangshan Forum saw participation by 600 representatives from more than 60 countries and organisations which included the increased participation from countries in Europe, Africa and the South Pacific.

The Forum was launched by a welcome dinner co-hosted by Admiral Sun Jianguo, Chairman of CIISS and the co-chair of the forum, General Cai Ying Ting, Chairman of CAMS. During this dinner, the attendees heard a keynote address delivered by the Chief of Defence Force of Malaysia, Gen Tan Sri Dato’ Sri (Dr) Hj Zulkifeli Bin Mohammed Zin.

The main theme of the Seventh Xiangshan Forum was to “Build a new type of international relations through security dialogue and cooperation”. Based on this theme, topics of discussion included responding to new security challenges in the Asia-Pacific region through cooperation, role of militaries in global governance, maritime security cooperation, and international terrorist threats and countermeasures.Other themes of discussions included topics such as major power relations and global strategic pattern, latest developments in terrorism and creative approaches to cooperation and maritime crisis management and regional stability.

It was well known that this year’s Xiangshan Forum was being held under the shadow of events which happened in the preceding fortnight or so, namely the spat between China and Singapore over a ruling on South China Sea claims and Seoul’s decision to allow a US anti-ballistic-missile system to be deployed on its territory. Thus it was widely expected that these issues would be raised in the Forum.

In line with these expectations, Singapore’s Senior Minister of State for Defence, Mr Ong Ye Kung, in his speech at the first plenary session of the Xiangshan Forum, brought out that being open and inclusive and having a rules-based world order were important requirements of the global order. It was also no surprise that China raised concerns over Washington and Seoul's decision to install a THAAD missile defence system in South Korea in response to growing worries about its northern neighbour's nuclear programme. This position was ably supported by Moscow as was evident by the Russian deputy defence minister Anatoly Antonov’s speech who also slammed the said decision taken by Seoul.

Another aspect which became evident from discussions at the Forum was that the South China Sea dispute remains a cause of major concern to many countries. These concerns were voiced by New Zealand Defence Minister Gerry Brownlee who said “…We oppose actions that undermine peace and erode trust and would like to see all parties actively take steps to reduce those tensions….. As a small maritime trading nation, international law and, in particular, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, is important for New Zealand. We support the arbitral process and believe that countries have the right to seek that international resolution…..A particular cause of heightened tension has been the reclamation and construction activity and deployment of military assets in disputed areas.”

Post this, China tried to downplay the comments made by New Zealand with the chairwoman of China’s foreign affairs committee of parliament Fu Ying addressing the audience and saying said “We hope that countries who are not involved in the disputes respect the countries who are having the disputes to work among themselves. Outside involvement, I think the developments have shown, interferences, can only complicate the differences and sometimes even add to the tension.”

Besides the South China Sea dispute, while speaking at this year’s Xiangshan Forum, Mr Chang Wanquan, China’s Defence Minister, also levied thinly veiled criticism at recent U.S. involvement in Asia’s trouble spots by saying “…Some countries seek absolute military superiority, ceaselessly strengthen their military alliances, and seek their own absolute security at the costs of other countries’ security”. The Defence Minister was attempting to draw attention towards the US under President Barack Obama seeking to “pivot” the Asia by increasing military and economic engagement in this region and thereby working towards containing the Asian giant's growing power.

All the Chinese efforts notwithstanding, the point was not lost on anybody that China’s refusal to abide by the arbitral process decision does point towards China’s reluctance to play by a rules based global order.

A stand out of this Forum was Beijing’s desire to create a new regional security architecture. This desire was evident from the speech given by Mr Liu Zhenmin, Vice Minister at the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, when he called for the “building of an Asia-Pacific security architecture”. China’s aspirations of creating such an architecture is not new as this desire has been mentioned by none less than President Xi Jinping in various fora. However, by specifically calling for such an architecture at the Xiangshan Forum, China has now initiated an international brainstorming on this topic on its own terms and conditions. It would thus be interesting to note and watch as to how such a Chinese proposed regional security architecture pans out in the times to come.

Talk by Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney, VIF

One of the important topics for deliberations at the Seventh Xiangshan Forum was “Major Power Relations and Global Strategic Pattern’. Besides other speakers, views on this topic were also expressed by Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney who represented the Vivekananda International Foundation at this year’s Xiangshan Forum. During his talk, Gen Sawhney brought out that our understanding of major or global powers has become dated and needs a relook. Elaborating further, he stated that while presently the P5 countries remain influential powers in the international system, their ability to deal with issues of international peace and security is limited. On the same account, he pointed to the fact that new kind of contemporary security challenges had emerged and such challenges could only be dealt by innovative responses from a unified international community.

Gen Sawhney further added that while the United Nations Security Council remains a platform for major powers to exercise their influence, it no longer represents the distribution of power in the globe and thus it needs reform and expansion. He opined that the approach to global security needs to be inclusive. Towards this end, a recognition of India, Japan, Germany and Brazil as responsible powers who could suitably contribute towards global peace and security would be in order. A natural corollary of this argument would be to rightfully consider these countries for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. He concluded by bringing out that today’s global system is multipolar, and any attempt at creating a condominium of only two global powers would be ill advised.

Published Date: 26th October 2016, Image Source:
(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Vivekananda International Foundation)

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