01 June 2015

China’s Missed Opportunity at the Shangri-La Dialogue

Trenchant analysis by the ever-sharp Bonnie Glaser. She highlights what was indeed a missed opportunity for Beijing: Admiral Sun Jianguo’s “unwillingness to respond to any of the questions posed left the impression that China could care less about others’ concerns and will stay the course in the South China Sea regardless.” To me, the real problem here is not the presentation style of any one individual (who doubtless faces considerable career incentives to be cautious) per se, but rather a larger pattern: Beijing’s self-righteous, relatively opaque approach to addressing its rapid, large-scale activities in the South China Sea.

Bonnie Glaser, “China’s Missed Opportunity at the Shangri-La Dialogue,” Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Center for Strategic and International Studies, 31 May 2015.

Since China first sent a senior military officer to participate in the Shangri-la Dialogue (SLD) in 2007, it has come to the annual security meeting prepared with a carefully crafted strategy to deflect criticism and advance Chinese interests. This year was no exception. On the eve of the SLD, Beijing released its Defense White Paper, which for the first time sketched out China’s military strategy as a demonstration of Chinese transparency. Recognizing that there would be substantial attention paid to China’s large-scale land reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing selected an admiral, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Sun Jianguo, to head this year’s delegation.

Admiral Sun’s speech to the large gathering of defense officials and security analysts from around the world was devoted to providing reassurance of China’s peaceful intentions, emphasizing Chinese willingness to provide public security goods, and insisting that China’s actions in the South China Sea are “legitimate, reasonable, and justified.” There were also some jabs at the United States. Sun declared that China would never “subjugate itself to hegemony by external forces,” he denied that China is challenging freedom of navigation, and insisted that the Chinese military will “unswerving defend” the nation’s “core interests.”

In contrast to last year, China’s military representative stuck to his script.  …

Despite evident significant preparation and a more positive approach, China’s strategy this year nevertheless did not succeed in its objectives, largely due to Admiral Sun Jianguo’s refusal to directly answer any of the more than a dozen questions posed to him following his speech. In anticipation of the barrage of questions, the MND staff prepared a briefing book for Sun with multiple tabs so he could easily access and recite Chinese policy on any issue. Asked about North Korea’s recent SLBM launch, Sun could be seen on the large screen flipping to the Korea tab of his book. He then faithfully read a few sentences about China’s commitment to peace and denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. He did the same in response to a question on cyber security. Sun read a lengthy statement on the South China Sea which reiterated Chinese intentions to primarily use its outposts for peaceful purposes that will benefit the entire region and asserted that China would consider establishing an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea only if its security is threatened. Most questions were simply ignored…. The only extemporaneous comment made by Sun was a closing ambiguous sentence that urged observers to base their judgments about China on its actions. …

Sun’s stilted performance was a missed opportunity for China to address the concerns about Chinese intentions and behavior that were raised throughout the two-day meeting by defense representatives and scholars from around the world, but most importantly from China’s neighboring countries. Even worse, his unwillingness to respond to any of the questions posed left the impression that China could care less about others’ concerns and will stay the course in the South China Sea regardless.