By Rebecca Choong Wilkins
(Bloomberg) — China may have turned down a face-to-face meeting with the US at the Shangri-la Dialogue defense forum in Singapore over the weekend, but its delegates had plenty to say during the panel discussions and on the sidelines — much of it by uniformed military officers.
“The Shangri-La Dialogue is a platform dominated by the West, but there are so many neighboring countries, countries in this region,” said Zhao Xiaozhuo, a senior fellow with the Institute of War Studies, affiliated with the People’s Liberation Army. “We think it’s a good opportunity to engage with each other.”
While most of Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu’s engagements were behind closed doors, PLA representatives raised questions at most of the public events. One non-Chinese delegate was even heard complaining that China blocked out too many seats to reserve spots at a Q&A session with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Given the format, in which the moderator compiled a series of questions from multiple delegates at once, it was easy for speakers to ignore any given query. Here are the key issues that China’s delegates asked about, abridged for clarity:
Southeast Asia’s Centrality
QUESTION: Chinese delegates criticized US-led security relationships throughout the forum. After a keynote speech by Austin, Chinese Senior Colonel Zhang Chi asked, “The theme of our plenary session here is US leadership. On the one hand you claim to support the centrality of Asean in the region, on the other hand the US established multilateral institutions such as the Quad and Aukus. Is there any contradiction between US-led institutions and the centrality of Asean in the region?”
CONTEXT: China has sought to portray the Quad (a group that includes the US, India, Australia and Japan) and Aukus (Australia, UK and US) as undermining Southeast Asia’s central role in promoting peace and stability in the region. The 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations hosts annual summits involving major powers, including the US, China, Russia and others.
ANSWER: Austin said he didn’t get the “entire gist” of the question and largely focused on the benefits of Aukus, saying it “will add significantly to our efforts to maintain peace and stability in the region.”
AI Cooperation, Huawei
QUESTION: Chinese Senior Colonel Zhu Qichao addressed US Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines on a panel discussing cybersecurity. “From your professional evaluation, we quarrel a lot but we need to work together to cope with future security challenges such as ChatGPT and related AI,” Zhu said. “How do you evaluate potential challenges to world security? And what’s your suggestion on how to put forward China and the US to cooperate?”
He also took issue with concerns about a campaign against Huawei Technologies Co. products, which many nations consider to have critical cybersecurity vulnerabilities. “To everyone sitting here, how many of you have used Huawei products and how do you understand the security issues and what they really are,” he said. “Huawei is opening, they want to cooperate with the world, try to solve problems and understand what the security problems really are.”
CONTEXT: The US has long urged countries to avoid using Huawei products due to concerns about spying, and has more broadly used export controls to deny China access to advanced chips needed for AI and other technology that will drive the modern economy.
ANSWER: Haines said the US is still evaluating ChatGPT, and part of that is understanding the implications for society and national security threats such as deepfakes and election interference. “In terms of communication with China, I absolutely think we should be talking to China, to others, both to understand what the issues are and how it is we all think about the concerns,” she added. Nobody on the panel responded to the comment on Huawei.
NATO’s Ability to Maintain Peace
QUESTION: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization also faced criticism, with Chinese officials saying the US is seeking to introduce an Indo-Pacific version of the alliance to encircle China. “NATO is a security alliance, and the existence of a military alliance needs enemies,” Zhao from the Institute of War Studies said to Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas. “Why after the end of the Cold War for more than 30 years, why has the security situation in Europe and the Asia-Pacific deteriorated?”
CONTEXT: China has long sympathized with Russia’s justification for invading Ukraine — that it was “provoked” by NATO’s expansion — even as Beijing opposes the war itself.
ANSWER: Kaja Kallas said that NATO, as an alliance of 31 countries, doesn’t pose a threat to sovereignty, calling that “ridiculous.” It’s a defense alliance of countries coming together to agree on how to better defend itself against an “existential threat” — Russia. She said NATO didn’t want Estonia at first, and she credited the country’s ability to eventually join the alliance as a reason it’s now “free and independent.”
NATO Containment, Expansion
QUESTION: China’s Qi Dapeng, a director at the National Security College, also pointed to the alleged shortcomings of NATO in a question to the defense ministers of Japan and Sweden.
“We’ve seen NATO expanding and expanding, trying to contain Russia. But this way did not work. As one consequence, the Europeans have a war in Ukraine,” he said. “Now in the Asia-Pacific, the US and its allies, including Japan, seem to follow suit, trying to contain China. So have you ever thought whether this way of containing itself is a problem or a kind of failure, as proved by the war in Ukraine?”
CONTEXT: Same as above. China agrees with President Vladimir Putin that NATO shares blame for the war in Ukraine. The US has repeatedly said it’s not looking to create a version of NATO in Asia, even as it strengthens alliances to deter China from taking Taiwan and other disputed territory by force.
ANSWER: Swedish Defense Minister Pal Jonson said that NATO has never pushed itself on anyone, and every country is free to decide their own path to security. He also called the war in Ukraine “the mother of all unintended consequences for Russia’s strategic thinking” because it ended up with a border with NATO that was 1,300 kilometers (800 miles) longer than before. Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada didn’t directly address the question.
NATO’s Role in Asia
QUESTION: Zhu Qichao had two questions: “With NATO looking on China as a systemic competitor and planning to open an office in Japan, will Asian leaders worry about over-intervention by outsider organizations in Asia Pacific and heavy pressure from a big power?”
He directed a second question to Australia’s Deputy Prime Minister Richard Marles: “You talk about the small organizations like the Quad, Aukus and the other organizations, and you’ve told us that such organizations will not generate the negative influence. How do you give us reassurance?”
CONTEXT: Same as above. China has repeatedly criticized US-led groups for stoking instability.
ANSWER: Marles said NATO wasn’t being exported into the Indo-Pacific region. He added that Australia could provide reassurance on the Quad and Aukus by speaking with counterparts and attending regional forums to clearly explain the reasons for the partnerships. He called Aukus a technology transferring arrangement, not an alliance, that is necessary to protect Australia’s connection to the world. Marles also said the Quad wasn’t a security organization, but rather practical engagement such as development assistance.
—With assistance from Jamie Tarabay, Philip J. Heijmans and Xiao Zibang.
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