China is hosting defense officials from across the world for its flagship military diplomacy conference this week – a key opportunity for Beijing to promote its alternative vision for global security that has also underscored its increasing alignment with Moscow against the United States.
More than 30 defense ministers and military chiefs, as well as lower-level representatives from dozens more countries and organizations, including the US, gathered for the three-day Xiangshan Forum in the Chinese capital.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu was given prominent billing as the first visiting official to address the forum Monday, where he and China’s keynote speaker both took aim at what they see as a failed US-led security system.
Noticeably missing from the line-up was China’s own defense minister.
Beijing last week announced it had removed defense minister Li Shangfu from his position, without naming a replacement or providing an explanation for the sudden demotion – the latest in a series of high-level shakeups under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
The Xiangshan Forum – billed as an opportunity for countries to resolve differences regarding defense and security issues – also comes amid heightened concerns about the potential for the Israel-Hamas war to spiral in a wider regional conflict and as Russia continues its onslaught on Ukraine.
Beijing has tried to project itself as a potential peacemaker in both conflicts, as it aims to cast itself as a player in global security amid heightened tensions with Washington.
That bid has drawn skepticism from governments in its own region and the West, given its aggression in the South China Sea and intimidation of Taiwan, as well as its backing of Russia despite its unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.
Both conflicts, however, were only briefly mentioned in a keynote address from top Communist Party military official Gen. Zhang Youxia, who repeated China’s calls for a “political resolution” for the “Ukraine crisis” and the “Israel-Palestine conflict.”
Zhang, who is vice chairman of Central Military Commission – a powerful body headed by Chinese leader Xi Jinping who ultimately commands China’s armed forces – instead focused his address on hailing Xi’s “Global Security Initiative” as a solution to global conflict – while making veiled jabs against the United States, which he did not directly name.
“Our world is overshadowed by the dark cloud of cold war mentality and we must avoid falling into bloc confrontation,” Zhang told his audience, using language typically employed by Beijing to criticize Washington and its allies.
“If a country only cares about its own interest it will perceive everyone else as a rival, if it is obsessed with suppressing others with different opinions it will surely cause conflicts and wars in the world,” he said.
Zhang, who ranks higher than defense minister, also said countries should instead focus on “common security” and respecting each other’s paths of development – key tenants stressed in Xi’s security initiative, which the leader announced last year.
The general also said Beijing would “show no mercy” against any moves for Taiwan independence, referring to the self-governing island China’s ruling Communist Party claims as its own.
China would continue to “deepen strategic coordination” with Russia’s military, and it was willing, Zhang added, to develop China-US military relations.
Increasing alignment with Russia
His speech was followed by a pointed address by Russia’s Shoigu – a key architect of Moscow’s faltering invasion of Ukraine that still rages 20 months on in what is Europe’s fiercest fighting since World War Two.
During his speech Shoigu accused NATO of “covering its real intention” to increase its presence in the Asia-Pacific and of promoting an arms race in the region, echoing China’s typical talking points.
“To maintain its geopolitical and strategic dominance, the US is deliberately undermining the basis of international security and strategic stability, including arms control, and undermining the legitimate rights and interests of Russia for its own security,” Shoigu said.
Security coordination between China and Russia has tightened in recent years amid rising tensions between each with the US and its allies. Beijing has repeatedly said it will not provide lethal aid to Russia’s war effort, but has continued to participate in joint military drills and other security coordination, while providing a key lifeline for the Russian economy since its invasion of Ukraine last year.
The Russian defense minister’s appearance followed a visit from Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing earlier this month, where he took the place of prominence next to Xi at the leader’s Belt and Road Forum.
The security forum also comes as the US and China are attempting to navigate their contentious relationship that includes frictions over Taiwan and Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea. A potential meeting between Xi and US President Joe Biden in the United States next month is seen by both sides as an important opportunity to stabilize ties.
Beijing severed high-level military dialogue with Washington last August in retaliation for a visit from then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan.
Its officials have declined American outreach for high level meetings, in what was widely seen as a protest against sanctions Washington placed on former defense minister Li in 2018, prior to his time as defense minister, for weapons purchases from Russia.
Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said at a regular press conference last week that Chinese officials would “have exchanges” with the US delegation.
“China attaches great importance to the development of military relations between China and the United States,” Wu said at the time, adding he hoped for a “favorable atmosphere for the healthy and stable development” of their military relations, according to state media.
The forum was attended by a delegation from the US defense department led by Xanthi Carras, China country director in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense.