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Shangri-La Dialogue: China's belligerent address is detached from reality

2nd June 2019 - 16:18 GMT | by Gordon Arthur in Singapore

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While the speech by US Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan at the Shangri-La Dialogue yesterday was mild mannered, the same was not true of the Chinese Minister of National Defence Gen Wei Fenghe. His audience was left in no doubt of China’s intentions by his bellicose comments.

For example, Wei emphatically underscored in Mandarin: ‘China must and will be reunified. We find no excuse not to do so. If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity.’

The last time China sent a defence minister to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore was in 2011, preferring in recent years to send lower-grade officials. Indeed, many speculated that China sent Wei this year so as to get on the front foot and reverse the public relations setbacks it has recently suffered in its narrative about the ‘win-win’ benefits that China is bringing to the world.

In fact, China proved successful at the 2019 Dialogue at grabbing hold of the reins and muting the direct criticisms of others.

Wei said many interesting things, but it is useful to pick out some of his comments, for they quickly reveal that China lives in an alternative reality that has little connection with what the rest of the world thinks.

For example, within the first minute of his speech, Wei reminded all that ‘President Xi Jinping’s great vision of building a community with a shared future for mankind is the answer to harmonious coexistence of people across the world, the effective solution to global problems and the right path towards world peace and human progress’.

This vision for mankind and human progress is rather frightening, as it includes incarcerating at least a million Muslims in concentration camps in Xinjiang Province, as well as enacting mass surveillance, stifling of the media, and restrictions on freedoms of speech, human rights and religion.

Wei continued: ‘Over the past 70 years since the founding of the PRC, China has never provoked a war or conflict, nor has it ever invaded another country or taken an inch of land from others. In the future, no matter how strong it becomes, China shall never threaten anyone, seek hegemony or establish spheres of influence.’

In fact, any history book demonstrates that China went to war against South Korea and its allies during the 1950-53 Korean War, as well as a short-lived and ill-conceived invasion of Vietnam in 1979. It has also sliced territory from India along their shared border high in the Himalayas.

Wei also noted, ‘We have never bullied or preyed on others, and we shall not let others bully or prey on us either.’

Obviously Vietnamese and Filipino fishermen do not count here, who are prevented from approaching traditional fishing grounds in the South China Sea and whose boats are rammed by vessels of the China Coast Guard. Nor does the hostage-taking of two Canadians, ‘tourism terrorism’, economic boycotts and Chinese maritime militia boats squatting in other countries’ EEZs count as bullying, it seems.

Wei addressed his country’s defence budget, which reached RMB1.19 trillion ($177.61 billion) for the coming year, a 7.5% increase. 

‘China’s defence expenditure is reasonable and appropriate. China enhances national defence in order to meet the legitimate needs to defend its own security as well as contribute to the world force for peace,' the minister said.

Of course, China has the right to spend its money as it sees fit. However, what it sees as ‘reasonable’, many neighbours see as unreasonable. 

Why does China need to spend so much on defence? What existential threats does it face that require such massive increases? For example, the amount of the increase alone in the coming year’s budget eclipses the whole annual defence budget of Taiwan.

China’s defence minister, a former People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Rocket Force commander, was rather bellicose, in sharp contrast with his American counterpart speaking a day earlier.

‘The more severe the pressure and difficulties are, the stronger and braver the Chinese people become. Adversity only brings our nation greater solidarity and strength… Faced with daunting and complex security challenges, the PLA vows not to yield a single inch of the country’s sacred land, but it shall not seize anything from others either. 

'The PLA has no intention to cause anybody trouble, but it is not afraid to face up to troubles. Should anyone risk crossing the bottom line, the PLA will resolutely take action and defeat all enemies.’

This is clearly a warning to the US and to anyone else who dares side with it. Ironically, contradicting his own earlier assertions, this is not the language of ‘win-win cooperation’ and it does indeed smack of coercion.

Taiwan remains a vexing issue for Beijing too, so all at the conference were warned in no uncertain terms. 

‘First, no attempts to split China shall succeed. Second, foreign intervention in the Taiwan question is doomed to failure…Third, any underestimation of the PLA’s resolve and will is extremely dangerous. We will strive for the prospects of peaceful reunification with utmost sincerity and greatest efforts, but we make no promise to renounce the use of force.’

Whereas defence ministers from ASEAN who also spoke at the Shangri-La Dialogue were preaching peaceful cooperation, pouring oil onto troubled waters, China stood in sharp contrast with such comments as those above.

‘Safeguarding national unity is a sacred duty of the PLA. If the PLA cannot even safeguard the unity of our motherland, what do we need it for?’ Wei mused. Clearly one major purpose of the PLA is to threaten and cudgel Taiwan into submission.

It was only natural that the South China Sea and freedom of navigation operations (FONOP) be addressed as well. 

‘The problem, however, is that in recent years some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles, in the name of freedom of navigation. The large-scale force projection and offensive operations in the region are the most serious destabilising and uncertain factors in the South China Sea.’

In fact, the US has been performing FONOPs for decades and not just in the South China Sea. These missions are perfectly permissible and admissible under international regulations such as UNCLOS.

Wei asserted, ‘It is the legitimate rights of a sovereign state to carry out construction on its own territory. China built limited defence facilities on the islands and reefs for self-defence. Where there are threats, there are defences. In face of heavily armed warships and military aircraft, how can we stay impervious and not build some defence facilities?’

Of course, Wei conveniently got his timeline wrong, because China was planning and building its artificial islands – now armed with missile batteries, aircraft shelters, runways and radars – before the tempo of FONOPs by the US and friends began to increase. This is all part of China’s crafted narrative that it is merely responding to the actions of others. In fact, the reverse is true.

He also claimed the facilities in the South China Sea were to improve the living conditions of troops living there, making them sound like a benign housing scheme. Of course, a number of those features previously never ever had anyone resident there in any case.

China clearly demonstrated it is living in its own world as regards to claims of sovereignty over the South China Sea. Wei asserted his nation has ‘legitimate sovereignty’ over the maritime area, whereas international law has already shown that it has no legitimate claim whatsoever.

Ending his prepared remarks, the uniformed defence minister saluted his audience.

A number of the minister’s responses to questions after his speech were astounding in their audacity.

With the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre just two days away, Wei claimed: ‘Thirty years have proven that under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, China has entered major changes. How can you say that China didn’t handle the Tiananmen incident properly? That incident was political turbulence’ and measures to stop that turbulence were therefore absolutely correct.'

Wei addressed terrorism too, describing it as a ‘common enemy’ and China as a ‘victim’. He insisted China does not have double standards when it comes to its treatment of terrorism. 

However, this is at odds with Beijing’s continually blocking the move at the United Nations Security Council to have Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar, residing in Pakistan and the mastermind behind a recent deadly bombing in Indian Kashmir, as a terrorist.

Wei’s speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue was replete with inaccuracies, fanciful claims, ironies and unilateral interpretations.

Unfortunately, nearly every country at the Dialogue – represented by their defence ministers – allowed him to do so without calling out China’s hypocritical behaviour in any way whatsoever. Either they were cowed into submission or were attempting to maintain a dubious peace with a country possessing the world’s largest armed force.

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