BEIJING, June 15 (ChinaMil) -- On June 2, 2017, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong invited representatives of defense minister level from 22 countries, military leaders from 12 countries, and senior military officials and scholars from 39 countries to a banquet dinner, which marks the opening of the 16th Shangri-La Dialogue.
Before the last but second course was served, US Defense Secretary James Mattis came to the seat of Lt. Gen. He Lei, head of the Chinese delegation.
Against the clicking and clashing of wine glasses, He Lei in military uniform and Mattis in black suit began to talk, regardless that waiters were waiting to serve the desert.
To meet or not to meet, to talk more or to talk less, these are all a reflection of state-to-state and military-to-military relations.
After talking with Mattis, He Lei told the press that evening that "I met with my French, British and Lao counterparts, and had a friendly chat with Mattis at the reception cocktail party and the opening banquet. I believe China and the US and their militaries should pursue win-win cooperation on the principle of non-conflict, non-confrontation and mutual respect. That's the only way to keep the bilateral relations moving forward."
The Chinese delegation kept an active yet low profile at the Shangri-La Dialogue, striving to foster dialogues and defuse confrontation. "As an international platform for dialogue, if the Shangri-La Dialogue only draws attention by mutual accusation and slashing, it won't achieve benign development," said He Lei.
"Most questions were for China"
During the simultaneous sessions on June 3, so many attendees wanted to ask questions of Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu, former director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science, that the host had to say "I will give the priority of asking questions to whomever whose question isn't for Maj. Gen. Yao."
People laughed, and Yao Yunzhu got her privilege. "Dr. Yao, most of the questions are for you, so you will have the grand finale."
Unlike in previous years, Yao Yunzhu didn't wear military uniform this year. "I'm retired this year, so I can speak with more freedom." As a special guest invited by the organizer, she and her hearty laughter became the center of attention as always.
In 2014, Yao Yunzhu asked the then US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel four questions, leaving a deep impression on the Chinese "tough female general".
"In my opinion, she is a dominant voice at the Shangri-La Dialogue and she has contributed her viewpoints and professional perspective here many times." The host gave the longest introduction to her of all speaking guests, mentioning her long service in the military since 1970 and giving her high comments.
"As to why China is against the deployment of THAAD, I prepared for this question, so I may spend more time on it." Yao's wit in answering questions drew a new round of laughter.
On June 4, when Nielson, a researcher at the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, asked a question of Russia's Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin, he particularly mentioned the plan stressed by "our Chinese friend Major General Yao Yunzhu" at the simultaneous session the day before.
"The Chinese government put forth the “suspension for suspension” proposal to solve the DPRK nuclear crisis." Yao became an authoritative source of information that other attending experts were ready to quote.
"The performance of Chinese delegation at the Shangri-La Dialogue indicated that China's military diplomacy is becoming more active in recent years," said Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, director of the Center for China-America Defense Relations at the PLA Academy of Military Science, whose view was echoed by Zhou Bo, director of Security Center at the Office for International Military Cooperation of the Ministry of National Defense.
At a China-foreign naval seminar held in China a few years ago, Zhou Bo was greatly surprised by how well Chinese naval officers spoke English and how willing they were to use it. They didn't speak Chinese at all during the two-day meeting, from the then deputy naval commander Ding Yiping to other officers.
"The diplomatic vigor and vitality of Chinese military will be stunning in the world in another ten or twenty years," exclaimed a foreign naval representative at the seminar.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue, the representatives talked about Chinese military with "strong interests" in friendly or sometimes intense manner.
"Interestingly, China said that their stationing equipment on the island isn't militarization, but the US, a country that has been present in the region longer than any of you has lived, is militarizing the region," Rear Admiral Donald, Commander of the U.S. Western Pacific Logistics Group, went tit for tat against Chinese scholars at the simultaneous session of "Practical Measures to Avoid Conflict at Sea".
"Conflicts at sea may occur because some countries, regardless of the concerns of coastal countries, insist on carrying out high-intensity and large-scale close-in reconnaissance and other military activities by its navy and air force." Zhou Bo, who was in the same session as Donald, refuted him by describing the various accusations of China as "face change", an opera trick from his hometown.
"I admired Zhou Bo's speech. I don't agree with him on many points, but he is undeniably a great speaker. His mention of 'China put the freedom of navigation in its domestic law 20 years ago' left a deep impression on me," said Weber, associate researcher at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
"It's the best speech on China's maritime policies I've ever heard," said Rockman, senior researcher at Institute of Strategic and International Studies (ISIS) Malaysia.
This gives a glimpse of how the Chinese delegation has won acclaim from foreign representatives at an event believed to be dominated by western powers.
"We need to be more active in defending national interests. We are not afraid of making mistakes as before," Xu Qiyu, deputy director of the Institute of Strategic Studies at National Defense University (NDU), recalled when he first participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue in 2009. "When foreigners asked crafty questions, we had no experience in how to answer them, and our No.1 rule was to not make any mistake and not leave any loophole."
From avoiding to welcoming questions, China has changed position from someone wandering outside the arena to a main guest well at ease. "The Shangri-La Dialogue has witnessed the progress of Chinese military in the way of thinking and diplomatic vision," said Yao Yunzhu.
Yao participated in the Shangri-La Dialogue for the first time in 2007, which was also the first time that the Chinese military sent a high-level delegation to the event, headed by Gen. Zhang Qinsheng, then deputy chief of general staff of the PLA.
"The dialogue in 2007 was a milestone when the Chinese delegation expressed its views and raised questions loud and clear." Yao Yunzhu recalled a detail that she remembered vividly. There was no teleprompter then, so Gen. Zhang Qinsheng gave the 16-minute speech without note at all. "He did very well".
Many years ago, some foreign scholar said that although military strategy scholars like Yao Yunzhu, who are highly reputed in Chinese and American academic circles, are respectable, it's questionable whether young military scholars in China can catch up with their predecessors.
"I'm retired now, but the Chinese military has good successors. In our delegation this year are some young scholars like Liu Lin," said Yao.
On June 4, Liu Lin, associate researcher at the Foreign Military Department of the PLA Academy of Military Science, asked a question of Philippine Deputy Defense Secretary Ricardo David. Noting that China and ASEAN countries are deepening military-to-military relations, she asked whether China can participate in the cruise of the Sulu Sea, and deputy secretary David gave a positive answer. Liu's question was viewed as Chinese representatives taking the initiative to set topics and steer the agenda.
"I never traveled abroad when I was Liu Lin's age. They have received far better training than me and have greater qualifications." According to Yao, in China's military education system, the education on international relations is ample, and Chinese military officers have more opportunities to go global.
Like a polyhedron, the Chinese delegation was trying to give light in more angles other than the western perspective. At this year's Shangri-La Dialogue, they were more proactive, expressed their views more naturally, and communicated with foreign counterparts with greater ease.
"We don't necessarily need others to be 'friendly' at the dialogue. We just want to make ourselves heard at the platform." Xu Qiyu believed the Chinese delegation's progress lies in more confidence and transparency.
U.S. being doubted and China's sense of participation
In Yao Yunzhu's view, the Shangri-La Dialogue is a platform where one can fully express his views. At this year's dialogue, scholars from different countries frequently aired their doubts about the U.S.
Unlike his predecessor who confirmed participation in the dialogue months ahead, Mattis didn't confirm his attendance until May 26. It is reported thatdays before the dialogue, a reporter specializing in covering the U.S. Defense Department, who also flew to Asia on the same flight as Mattis, got a no to his request to interview the secretary.
Traditionally, western powers have advantages in giving speeches and setting the agenda. The Shangri-La Dialogue determined the importance of participants based on their strength, and the U.S. Defense Secretary has always been the only speaker at the first general plenary session.
Mattis' keynote speech this time was considered an announcement of the Trump administration's Asia-Pacific policy and has been closely watched by Southeast Asian countries. But on June 1, one day before the opening ceremony, the U.S. side noticed the organizer that the usual 50-minute keynote speech will be cut to 30 minutes.
When talking about the U.S. and China working together to solve the DPRK’s nuclear issue, Mattis had two slips of the tongue within less than 30 seconds, saying another country's name instead of China.
When Mattis finally wrapped up the speech in less than 28 minutes, what awaited him were continuous doubts about America's policy.
"You are regarded as our hope," Dr Michael Fullilove, executive director of Australia's Lowy Institute for International Policy, asked the first question.
"But in the past four months, President Trump has pulled out of TPP and the Paris Agreement. How can we not be worried about the collapsing old order (dominated by the U.S.)? Please give me a reason to be optimistic." Doubts from its allies cast a shadow over Mattis' speech.
"Is the U.S.-Japan alliance simply based on security considerations? Are the common values behind it vanishing?" asked Taro Kono, son of Japanese "China-school" diplomat YoheiKono and member of the Japanese House of Representatives.
Mattis kept quiet for half a minute before answering the questions.
"Rules-based order" is without any doubt the most frequently used phrase at this year's Shangri-La Dialogue. When asking Tomomi Inada a question, professorPaulEvans from the University of British Columbia joked that "the theme of the three defense ministers is rules-based order. I believe we've heard that word 25 times".
This U.S.-coined concept was first put forth by Mattis' predecessor Ashton Carter at the 2016 Shangri-La Dialogue. Starting with Australian Prime MinisterMalcolm Turnbull, several speakers took turns trying to wedge this concept into the event agenda like a nail, including Mattis and his Japanese, French and Australian counterparts Tomomi Inada, Goulardand Payne.
"Since this is a 'rules-based' meeting, I must take note of the time." When attending a simultaneous session on June 3, Yao Yunzhu joked about this concept and even the host couldn't help but smile.
"The U.S. has been stressing the so-called international rules. But who made those rules? Which international laws support the so-called 'freedom of navigation'? Is the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea being ignored by the U.S.?" Yao contributed three of the last questions thrown at Mattis.
On May 24, an American warship entered 12 nautical miles off China's Meiji Reef for the so-called "freedom of navigation" exercise, the first time that Donald Trump approved an exercise like this since he took power. From February to May, Harry Harris, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, made three requests for "freedom of navigation" exercise to the Pentagon, all rejected.
The U.S. military's action one week from the Shangri-La Dialogue indicated its "consistent" resolve to hype up the South China Sea issue again.
One day before the U.S. warship entered the 12 nautical miles of Meiji Reef, the Trump administrative rolled out the government budget report of the 2018 fiscal year and announced to increase the basic national defense budget by 10%, a 10-year new high in annual growth, driving the total military budget to the highest point since 2013 fiscal year.
When the budget was submitted to the Congress for approval, an important figure in the Congress was rooting for the U.S. military on the other side of the earth. On May 30, McCain, chairman of the military committee in U.S. Senate, delivered a speech in Australia, in which he accused China of its so-called militarizing actions in the South China Sea.
McCain was in Singapore for the opening banquet of the Shangri-La Dialogue on June 2, but was nowhere to be seen during the sessions afterwards.
The moves that the U.S. carefully schemed before the dialogue also fell flat amid the heated discussions of all participants.
Harry Harris accompanied Mattis in all the bilateral and multilateral meetings, but he didn't answer any question from the press.
"With the changing balance of power in the Asia Pacific, the rules that maintain the current international order must be adjusted because of pressure," said Singapore Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen at the last plenary session.
Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin sounded pretty helpless when speaking at the event, "we are still trying to confirm America's Asian strategy."
"On surface, China was still the target of some countries, but the general unrest about and disappointment with America was a strong undercurrent," said Yao Yunzhu.
"China is a protector and observer of international rules," He Lei stressed the "order" in his eyes. "International rules should be recognized by most countries in the world and represent their interests. Regional rules should be recognized by the majority of countries in the region too."
Philippine Deputy Defense Secretary Ricardo David and Malaysian Defense Minister Hishammuddin spoke positively of the framework for the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea drafted by China and ASEAN.
"The question I was asked most in the past two years is what China thinks of the international order and what it will do after going global," said Xu Qiyu. "We are lucky to be born in this age, when both Chinese history and world history are coming to a transition period."
When China is getting fully prepared to scale the highland of this arena, the situation is turning in its favor too.
Written by Zheng Yujun, Yao Yijiang and Tian Xubing from the Southern Weekend.