Sixth Xiangshan Forum
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1. The Xiangshan, or Fragrant Hills, conference was held from 16 to 18 October 2015 at China National Convention Center in Beijing. Lt Gen Ravi Sawhney was invited from the Vivekananda International Foundation to attend this conference. His observations/comments are given in the succeeding paragraphs.

2. The Sixth Xiangshan Forum was cosponsored by China Military Science Society (CMSS) and China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS). Around 500 representatives from China and abroad attended the ibid Forum. These representatives included official representatives from 49 countries and 4 international organizations as well as experts and scholars from 39 countries. While the Cambodian Prime Minister, Hun Sen was the guest speaker at the reception banquet held on the evening of 16 October 2015, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission (CMC), gave the keynote speech on 17 October 2015.

3. The Xiangshan Forum is a platform established by the CMSS in 2006. The first four forums were positioned as a track-2 communication platform between international defense personnel and academics and the forum was 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 the track-1.5 high level dialogue platform of security and defense in Asia and is held once a year since the 5th Xiangshan Forum which was held in 2014.

4. The Sixth Xiangshan Forum had two distinctive charactersistics when compared to the previous forums. Firstly, the forum had a wider range of participants. In addition to defense ministers, the forum also invited the commanders and chiefs of staff from participating countries. Fourteen countries including the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Japan and Indonesia which did not send official delegations last year, sent official delegations to the forum this year. Secondly, the level of representatives this year was higher compared with that of previous years. This year, besides the Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, defense ministers from 16 countries, senior commanders from defence forces, members of permanent bodies of international organizations, former military and political officials and well-known scholars participated in the forum. The topics of the sixth forum focused on security cooperation in Asia and the Asia-Pacific and other major national security issues.

5. The Xiangshan forum is seen as a potential competitor to Singapore’s showpiece Shangri-La Dialogue, which attracts top international military officials and experts. In line with this thought, the Sixth Xiangshan Forum was held by China to burnish its reputation in a region wary of Beijing's territorial ambitions. The same is on account of the fact that four of the ASEAN countries have claims to seas and islands in the South China Sea that clash with Beijing's own.

6. The forum was primarily utilized by China to assuage fears that have arisen as a result of its construction activities in the South China Sea. Against this backdrop, speaking at the forum, General Fan Changlong, pledged that China would “Never recklessly resort to the use of force, even on issues bearing on sovereignty and have done our utmost to avoid unexpected conflicts”. In response to concerns that have been growing over the rapid appearance of islands created by piling sand atop reefs and atolls controlled by China, which is now adding, harbors, air strips and large buildings, he further added that, “the projects were mainly intended for civilian use and the projects will not affect freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. Instead, they will enable us to provide better public services to aid navigation and production in the South China Sea.”
7. Though this argument has been made by Beijing made many times before, satellite images of the islands published by the US think-tanks have shown that there are as many as three runways on the islands that could accommodate fighter jets, raising concerns about China’s true intentions. These thoughts were further elucidated upon by Adm Gary Roughead, former US chief of naval operations when he told the forum that the scale of building of ports and airfields in the seas by China raised legitimate concerns. He pointed out specific concerns by stating that “I do not see an influx of tourists clamouring to visit these remote outposts”.

8. Concerns about Chinese activity in the South China Sea were also reinforced by the Malaysia Armed Forces chief Gen Tan Sri Zulkefli Mohd Zin, when he told the Xiangshan Forum that "I would like to address the issue of the unwarranted provocation by the Chinese over the construction on the garrisoned islands of the South China Sea". In response to Chinese attempts at offering assurances that their building work is also for civilian purposes, maritime research and to facilitate safe navigation of ships in that area, he added, "So time will tell as to what China's intention is. In the meantime we have got to accept the reasons given by the government of the People's Republic of China as to the purpose of the development of these islands. I hope that it is for good purposes and the purposes of all human kind."

9. These remarks were different from earlier remarks emanating from Malaysia as till date, Malaysia has generally adopted a cautious line in its dealings with Beijing over disputed territory in the South China Sea, in contrast to Vietnam and the Philippines, which have railed against perceived Chinese expansionism. But two Chinese naval exercises in quick succession around the James Shoal, which lies inside Malaysia's exclusive economic zone, prompted Kuala Lumpur to change its approach.

10. In addition to these assertions, there have also been reports which state that the US Navy may soon receive approval to sail a ship inside the 12-nautical mile (21km) territorial limit surrounding China's man-made islands. The Philippines, an ASEAN member, has expressed support for such a move. Sailing within the boundary would mark the first time that the US has directly challenged China's territorial claims since 2012 and reinforce Washington's assertion that the land reclamation does not add sovereign territory. The US and its allies, including the Philippines, insist that the newly made islands threaten stability in an increasingly militarised region.

11. In addition to the South China Sea, senior military officials from a dozen or so countries agreed that the Asia-Pacific region faces threats ranging from piracy and smuggling to natural disasters and terrorism, and that a cooperative community is required to deal with these threats. Also , the international society should urgently work together on cyberspace, as the Internet now plays an unprecedentedly important role in the spread of terrorism and extremism, which can help incite and recruit new members.

12. In conclusion, though China tried to reassure the global environment that its activities in the South China Sea had no military connotation not many bought this idea. Further it is well known that, along with claiming almost all of the South China Sea's island groups and crucial sea lanes, China is dueling with Japan over ownership of an uninhabited chain of islands north of Taiwan, and in late 2013 declared an air defense zone that would theoretically give it control of aviation over much of the East China Sea. With many analysts believing that in future, China could consider declaring a similar zone over the South China Sea, the attempt made by China at the Sixth Xiangshan Forum towards calming the South China Sea waters did not actually pay off. On the contrary, if comments heard at the forum are any indication of the times to come, it appears that high winds are heading towards the South China Sea!

Event Date 
October 16, 2015
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