China defends military expansion

China defends military expansion
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan (L) salutes next to Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin bin Tun Hussein before his speech during the Xianshan Forum in Beijing on November 21, 2014.

China has called for an "open, transparent, equal and inclusive" Asia-Pacific security architecture, even as it defended its military expansion at a security forum widely seen as Beijing's latest attempt to rival existing Western-led multilateral platforms.

Defence Minister Chang Wanquan said at the 5th Xiangshan Forum (XF) in Beijing yesterday that the region should not be locked in a "Cold War mentality" and that better crisis management should be introduced to prevent escalation of conflicts.

"We call for the further strengthening of dispute management procedures to improve our ability to cope with crises," he said. "Disputes should be resolved through negotiations with full respect to historical facts and international law."

His comments come a day after Mr Dennis Shea, chairman of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, warned that increased Chinese military spending and China's expanding naval capabilities are among developments "enabling China to challenge decades of air and naval dominance by the United States in the Western Pacific". Beijing is involved in maritime disputes with US-allied countries such as Japan and the Philippines.

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen noted at a plenary session yesterday that regional defence spending had grown along with the rise of Asia's economies and the evolution of new financial mechanisms.

"Similarly, in the defence and security arena too, Asia needs a security architecture which can accommodate this military modernisation and provide for peace and stability in the region," he said, echoing General Chang's call.

This architecture must be open and inclusive, provide regular platforms for dialogue and have mechanisms that promote the peaceful resolution of disputes, Dr Ng added. The early conclusion of a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea to manage maritime disputes, for instance, will be an important deliverable for regional security, he said.

Other defence ministers attending the three-day forum, which started on Thursday, included those from Malaysia, Kyrgyzstan, Serbia and Tajikistan.

For the first time this year, the XF was upgraded from an academic exchange to a high-level forum with regional defence chiefs invited to join. It will also be held yearly instead of biennially. In all, some 300 officials and academics from 47 countries attended the forum.

Experts say the XF is likely Beijing's attempt to create its own version of the Shangri-La Dialogue (SLD) - an annual meeting of defence ministers in Singapore - as it strives for a greater role in regional security. China was stung by criticisms of its actions in disputed waters by the US and Japan at the SLD in May this year, they noted.

Dr William Choong of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, which organises the SLD, told The Straits Times that China is championing new multilateral bodies as it feels it has little say in existing ones dominated by the US or Japan. "China wants to create new bodies or refashion existing ones so that it has more leverage and a dominant role in them," he said. "I don't think China is necessarily trying to exclude the US, but it definitely wants a bigger share of the pie."

Beijing has already been leading other initiatives as it seeks to assume more responsibilities and, some experts say, counter the US' pivot to the Asia-Pacific. At the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Mechanisms in Asia, an Asian security forum held in Shanghai in May, President Xi Jinping also advocated the security concept of an "Asia for Asians" that frowns on the US network of security alliances with Asian states like Japan.

Dr Choong noted that the XF is hosting about six defence ministers while the SLD hosted 16 countries at full ministerial level this year.

"I doubt the XF can replicate the SLD's trademark of free debate and open questions from the floor. But never say never. Given China's resources and connections, it has the potential to stand among other regional security dialogues in the future," he added.

Chinese experts are optimistic. "It's normal for forums to start slow but they'll gain traction. The defence ministers of states like Japan and South Korea might have declined to attend as they want to observe it first but they'll participate in the future," said Renmin University's Professor Jin Canrong.

This article was first published on Nov 22, 2014.
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