The 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum (BXF) was held jointly by the China Association for Military Science (CAMS) and China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS) last week. The Forum was started in 2006 as a biennial track-2 platform for Chinese and international defence intellectuals from government and non-government think tanks to discuss regional and global security concerns, challenges and opportunities. With the arrival of Xi Jinping as China’s new leader and changes in China’s internal dynamics and priorities, the organisers of the Xiangshan Forum adapted to the new changes, and the forum was upgraded from a track-2 event to a track-1.5 in 2014.
Over 600 delegates, including 76 official delegations, with 23 defence ministers, six chiefs of staff of different countries, and representatives of international and regional organisation participated and deliberated upon the theme of this year’s forum — “Maintaining International Order and Promoting Peace in the Asia-Pacific”. The forum also added another new element and organised the inaugural China-ASEAN defence think-tanks exchange.
The BXF received a congratulatory letter for the second time from the Chinese President who called on Asia-Pacific countries to jointly address security challenges, safeguard international order and facilitate the long-term peace of the region via dialogue and cooperation. He underlined the need for nations in the Asia-Pacific to unite and uphold the global order with the United Nations as its core. More importantly, he suggested security mechanisms that are suitable to the region’s development and situation.
Xi’s reiteration of his last year’s idea of regional solution for regional matters manifests China’s new security concept. Describing the forum as a major platform for international security and defence dialogue, Xi said the forum has played a positive role in promoting security dialogue, mutual trust and cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region since its inception.
In his keynote speech, Chinese defence minister Wei Fenghe said that Xi’s letter expressed China’s sincere willingness to increase strategic mutual trust and security cooperation with countries around the world. He laid out a strong warning to countries who challenge China’s core interest in the island of Taiwan. He described China’s full reunification as the irresistible trend of the times and no force can stop reunification.
Wei also said that the Chinese will not relinquish a single inch of territory passed down from their forefathers. Yet, he also insisted that China’s development does not pose a threat to other countries. He emphasised on the new security concept outlined by Xi in previous year’s letter that China is following a new concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security. China will adopt an even more open approach when working with all nations to enhance development and security through cooperation and to build a community with a shared future for mankind. He added that China will never attach any political strings, force nations to take sides, interfere in other countries’ domestic affairs or push its agenda on to others.
Focused on forging partnerships, China has reiterated its proposal of reshaping and managing Asia’s security architecture at this forum consistently that merits closer attention. It is developing framework of a new regional security architecture knitting together a tighter web of existing institutions to accomplish Beijing’s desired strategic ends. BXF represents China’s wishes to be better heard and understood by the world and enables Beijing to bring together representatives from around the world who may not have the opportunity to come together and listen to each other’s perspectives.
Having greater financial and strategic resources, China’s interests have also expanded globally and it seeks a more active regional and global role. At a time when Asian states, to varying degrees, are receptive to various Chinese initiatives, Beijing considers itself better resourced to implement its own regional initiatives. BXF has helped China greatly to put across its narrative and is doing fairly well in diluting western discourse hegemony.
Since its inception, BXF has been compared with Shangri La Dialogue (SLD), the annual regional security forum that is convened in Singapore by the London-based Institute of International and Security Studies (IISS). While BXF has learned from SLD and other security forums, it is in the process building itself up as a similar platform and identifying global issues from a China perspective. However, unlike SLD, academic publications on regional/global security outlook are not in the priority list for the BXF. Also, BXF is driven by the PLA and every edition has a different theme/focus. It has different categories of delegates and has a global reach with a wider range of participants. More importantly, BXF offers an occasion for Beijing to fine-tune its message to alleviate the concerns of many Asian countries who recognise the value of international rules and norms for regional peace and prosperity. Some international participants see BXF as “the security component” to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and a rival to SLD, while some others see it as an “Asian forum for Asians” that attracts contesting parties at a common platform and facilitates interactions.
Though BXF has evolved as a robust and leading platform to deliberate upon global disruptions and rapid transformations, many participants felt that Chinese behaviour has become the leading concern in building trust. Nevertheless, BXF can play a constructive role in restructuring of Asian security order through facilitating dialogue and cooperation.
The writer is a visiting fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and a participant in the BXF