Beijing holds Xiangshan defence forum as tension festers over South China Sea

Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (4th right) claps next to his counterparts from Asean during the China-AseanDefense Ministers' Informal Meeting in Beijing, China, October 16, 2015. China’s Xiangshan defence forum followed the informal Asean meeting today. — Reuters pic
Chinese Defence Minister Chang Wanquan (4th right) claps next to his counterparts from Asean during the China-AseanDefense Ministers' Informal Meeting in Beijing, China, October 16, 2015. China’s Xiangshan defence forum followed the informal Asean meeting today. — Reuters pic

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BEIJING, Oct 16 — China gathered defence officials and experts from across the Asia-Pacific in Beijing today for a three-day security forum intended to boost the Asian giant’s influence on the global stage.

The Xiangshan, or Fragrant Hills, conference comes as tensions rise between Washington and Beijing, the region’s two largest economic and military powers, over the latter’s construction of artificial islands in disputed South China Sea waters.

US officials have signalled they may soon send ships by the islands, challenging Chinese sovereignty claims in a strategically crucial area that hosts vital shipping lanes — and Beijing has said it would “firmly oppose” such a move.

The conference, the sixth of its kind, will be attended by 60 official delegations and 130 scholars, according to organisers.

It is part of China’s broader effort to increase its international influence, which has also seen the creation of the multi-billion-dollar Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

The event will give Beijing “a louder voice”, according to a comment piece in the state-run China Daily newspaper, which added that it will help correct characterisations of China as ”aggressive”.

The conference is seen as a potential competitor to Singapore’s showpiece Shangri-La Dialogue, which attracts top international military officials and experts to the city-state each spring.

In the past, that gathering has served as a forum for Western officials to dress Beijing down on its behaviour in the South China Sea, something less likely to occur on home turf.

‘Peace patrols’

The Xiangshan meeting followed an informal gathering of defence ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) in the Chinese capital today.

The group includes Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam, all of which have rival South China Sea claims, as does non-Asean member Taiwan.

The disputes have sometimes spilled over into confrontations as vessels from the competing countries spar over fishing grounds and resource extraction rights.

Vietnam has repeatedly accused China of ramming its fishing boats as they ply local waters. The Philippines has taken its dispute to a United Nations tribunal, infuriating Beijing.

Indonesia’s defence minister Ryamizard Ryacudu proposed joint “peace patrols” between China and Asean countries in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of the gatherings, according to Jakarta’s state-run news agency Antara.

“If the countries who have interests in the South China Sea can calm tensions and are able to manage the conflict, there’s no need to involve other parties in resolving the dispute,” he was cited as saying.

Asean has for years called on China to negotiate a Code of Conduct for the region, a binding set of rules aimed at preventing actions that lead to conflict. 

Beijing has agreed to engage in “consultations” on the issue, although not full negotiations.

Several Asean defence ministers stayed on in Beijing for the Xiangshan forum, including Vietnam’s military chief.

The gathering’s headline speaker is Hun Sen, the prime minister of Cambodia, which has close relations with China. It is not a claimant in the South China Sea and has backed Beijing’s stance that Asean should stay out of the dispute.

No American officials appear on the conference’s agenda, although a prominent spot is given to retired US Navy Admiral Gary Roughead, who will speak on a panel with several defence ministers. -— AFP

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