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Beyond Rescinding the Xiangshan Forum

Lt Gen PC Katoch, PVSM, UYSM, AVSM, SC (Retd)@

 

China has cancelled the Xiangshan Forum this year held annually in September-October. Initiated in 2006 by the China Association for Military Science (CAMS), the Forum was a Track 2 level platform for dialogues on Asia-Pacific security and defence issues. In 2014, it was upgraded to Track 1.5 levels, inviting official delegations from relevant countries. The 7th Xiangshan Forum held in Beijing in October 2016 had the theme ‘Build a New Type of International Relations through Security Dialogue and Cooperation’. Four topics listed discussed at the plenary session were: Role of Militaries in Global Governance; Responding to New Security Challenges in the Asia-Pacific through Cooperation; Maritime Cooperation: and, International Terrorist Threats and Countermeasures. Subjects discussed at concurrent panels included: Major Power Relations and Global Strategic Structure; Globalization versus Deglobalization: Implications for International Security; Latest Developments in Terrorism and Creative Approaches to Cooperation; and, Maritime Crisis Management and Regional Stability.

            The purpose of listing out the topics / subjects discussed at the 7th Xiangshan Forum is for readers to relate how they relate to and help promote the ‘China Dream’, and more importantly what is the actual conduct of China while portraying herself as benign power that believes in promoting peace, cooperation and economic development across the board for benefiting regions and the world at large. Take China’s aggressive moves in Asia-Pacific: arbitrary extension of EEZ in complete disregard to neigbours; reclaiming reefs and islands in East China Sea (ECS) and South China Sea (SCS), and militarizing them with forward deployment of weapon systems, communications and radar facilities; building underwater observation system in disputed ECS and SCS  heightening tensions; deliberate moves by PLAN in jostling foreign vessels in their own waters; proactive employment of fishing militia for legalizing illegal claims; drilling for oil in waters illegally claimed; discounting Hague-based tribunal rejecting China’s maritime claims vis-à-vis Philippines; driving wedge in ASEAN using economic muscle; supporting North Korea despite international sanctions, and the like.   

            As for terrorism, China not only has patronized terrorist organizations using  them with impunity, but also supports Pakistan exporting terror and its anti-India jihad. The UWSA (United State Wa Army) in Myanmar, straddling the Golden Triangle, has now bid for direct talks with the Myanmar Government, China being a party to the talks. That China armed UWSA to the teeth even with missile fitted helicopters is well known. This replicates what China is doing with the Taliban controlling the Golden Crescent in Afghanistan, China being party to all negotiations with Taliban, be it the QCG or multi-party talks in Beijing, St Petersburg, Islamabad or Kabul. In both cases, China is exploiting narco-mafias and terrorist organizations to further own interests. China also supports insurgents of northeast India and in May 2015 established the ULFWSEA (United Liberated Front of West, East and South Asia) in Myanmar bringing together nine major northeast insurgent groups including the NSCN (K) and ULFA.

            Getting back to cancellation of the Xiangshan Forum (for voicing China’s views on the new Asian architecture) in this year, the reason attributed in the Chinese media quoting a PLA source is due to “pressure at home and abroad”. Other reasons given are the Academy of Military Science undergoing reorganization and leadership reshuffle and upcoming 19th Party Congress later this year. These excuses don’t cut much ice. The Xiangshan Forum is co-organized by the Academy of Military Science and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS) supported by the foreign ministry, and hosting a 2-3 day event like this is no problem despite military reorganization given that China always plans months / years in advance. Besides, this Forum was established as counter to the Shangri La Dialogue. 

            Sure ‘pressure at home and abroad’ has made China cancel the Xinjiang Forum, but ‘pressure at home’ can hardly be related to military restructuring. Apparently, schisms are developing within China – both within and outside the Communist Party of China (CPC), and this is not because of President Xi Jinping’s assault on corruption. No doubt Xi has usurped all power unto himself even as China continues to hold CPC as supreme. In addition to being China’s President, General Secretary of the CPC, Chairman Central Military Commission and C-in-C of the PLA, Xi has been anointed ‘core leader’ of the CPC. This puts him on a pedestal along with likes of Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping though according to Chinese experts, Xi is “still far from acquiring the enormous status that Mao” has in Communist China. But when one accumulates that type of enormous power and is surrounded by coterie of yes men, certain amount of rashness tends to seep in. Xi should understand this being Secretary Defense in the Ministry of National Defense under Deng Xiaoping when China invaded Vietnam in 1979 to teach them a lesson, but Vietnam taught China a lesson instead.

            Xi Jinping, who just turned 64 on June 15, appears to be in tearing hurry to get himself elevated to the level of Mao by going down in history as the one who elevated China to the status of ‘Great Power’ - at par  or even higher than the USA. Xi’s aggressive actions have earned avoidable adversaries. Persistent proclamations about the peace and prosperity to all with respect to China’s One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative, though welcomed by economists, has failed to hide the strategic intent of China. This is particularly relevant in the case of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) which is China’s flagship project for OBOR. China not only went about projects in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir without reference to India, the CPC was perhaps very sure that India will join it, giving it the semblance of economic viability, which otherwise is China’s strategic highway to the Indian Ocean.

            Same goes for China’s Maritime Silk Route (MSR), which is superfluous with existing international trade using traditional maritime trade routes. CPEC is outlet for Chinese companies and employment for Chinese public, providing vital oxygen supply in the long-term to sustain the Chinese economy. Interestingly, with minimal Chinese government investment in OBOR, it is the private companies that will invest heavily, and latter will be sitting ducks for retaliation in the event of China becoming overtly aggressive not to the liking of global powers. Already, Europe is not too thrilled about OBOR. Moreover, OBOR and other Chinese development projects necessitate continued presence of Chinese, drawing concerned countries into the gravitational pull of Chinese strategic ambitions – something that Sri Lanka has discovered and Pakistan would soon discover. Pakistan would do well to recall what British East India Company did to undivided India 350 years back. How large Chinese presence will affect indigenous culture is separate issue but China has scant regard for environment. China calls for shutting down its coal plants but is establishing 11 coal-based power projects in Pakistan for which coal will be transported from China.

            Had China negotiated OBOR more pragmatically at bilateral / multi-lateral levels without much noise, perhaps it have not aroused much suspicion, but for Xi’s zealous ambition. Additionally, behind creation of an aura of invincibility, CPC is not much different from any pusillanimous organization. After India refused to join the CPEC, China’s invite was surreptitiously routed through a serving Pakistani Corps Commander. Later, China’s Ambassador to India stated that the name of CPEC could even be changed – a feeler that the diplomat could not have given without blessings of the CPC. Then, a PLA official posted at New Delhi stated unofficially at a seminar that ‘India must understand that China has to support Pakistan because of the ETIM’. So, if Pakistan can hold China to ransom with ETIM terrorist threat, where is the invincibility that China boasts about? The PLA officer’s admission should indicate to the Chinese hierarchy what China will face in coming years with its continued aggress across the board.

            The Machiavellian manner in which China is aggravating tensions in Asia-Pacific through North Korea is hardly hidden. The carefully built narrative of China moving away from North Korea, described by some as ‘tectonic shift’, is unconvincing considering that North Korea under global economic sanctions would have been tamed years back but for China. China would love North Korea, her nuclear talon, to hit US assets like Guam in retaliation to how Tianjin Port was struck by a kinetic space weapon on 12 August 2015. But while posing as bystander in a possible US-North Korea spat, does China realize that in addition to what may happen to North Korea, another space weapon could be tested at a target like say Gwadar? The fact that Gwadar is soon to become SSBN base of PLAN is hardly hidden, existing depth of the harbor notwithstanding.       

            China would also be aware that on May 21, addressing a congregation of 50 Arab and Muslim nations at Riyadh during his visit to Saudi Arabia, US President Donald Trump, while making oblique reference to Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Muslim countries who ‘in the past’, turned a blind eye to radical clerics and others recruiting extremists, conspicuously singled out Iran as major perpetrator of global terror.  On 4 June 2017, James M Dorsey, in his article titled ‘US takes step towards embrace of Gulf plan to destabilize Iran’ wrote about the Trump administration moving to back Saudi Arabia and the UAE to destabilize Iran and force Qatar to fall in line with Gulf policies that target Iran, political Islam, and militants. Dorsey’s observations are already coming true with Qatar isolated by Saudi Arabia, UAE and Bahrain cutting both diplomatic and economic relations, and others like Egypt, Yemen and Maldives following suit..

            If Iran is to be destabilized, with aim of regime change, will the region be transformed into a situation like Syria? Such development should make Xi Jinping realize that there is always a thin line between grandiose plans running on schedule and going awry. If Iran were to destabilize, what happens to OBOR and MSR, especially the fulcrum where they converge at Gwadar? What happens to the International North-South Transportation Corridor (INSTC)? Sure, Russia and China will become involved but so are they in Syria. Moreover, if PLA gets directly involved, what happens to China’s soft belly strung along OBOR? What if thousands of Uighurs fighting in Syria, including some being trained and armed in that region, start feeling home sick?

            Other than the underlying strategic intent, China’s aim is to achieve regional hegemony with OBOR through: generating demand abroad to keep own steel mills, cement plants and construction companies in business - preserving jobs at home to boost own economy; draw concerned countries into China’s economic  orbit enhancing hard and soft power; promote Yuan as international alternative to US dollar; and promote ‘soft loans’ by China-led multi-lateral infrastructure bank to undermine influence of US-based institutions. But China faces multiple headaches besides economic slowdown.  For example, while China is relocating 9.81 million people living in “impoverished and unsustainable conditions” in 22 provinces to geographically less disadvantaged areas at cost of $158 billion during 2016-2020, some 400 million Chinese are expected to transit from rural regions to urban areas. What happens if this cross-section gets restive or is induced into restlessness?  

            Considering the above, cancellation of the Xiangshan Forum is of little consequence. The question is how Xi Jinping will lead China into the future? Will he continue treading the path of aggression hoping to bulldoze a path to transform China into a ‘Great Power’, and in doing so, whether it will lead to the breakup of the CPC and possibly even China? Alternatively, would he decide to shed the façade, stop bullying neighbours and smoke the peace pipe?

 

@The author is an ex-member of the USI Council, New Delhi.

 (Article uploaded on Jun 13, 2017).

Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the organisation that he belongs to or of the USI.

CENTRE FOR UNITED NATIONS PEACEKEEPING (CUNPK)

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