Which Chinese military leader will lead the Xiangshan Forum?

The Xiangshan Forum is scheduled to open at the end of this week in Beijing, after a three-year hiatus due to the pandemic, and in that time several complex geopolitical and security issues have cropped up that are likely to be discussed. Furthermore, the sudden change in China’s military leadership and continued freezing of China-US military interactions adds another layer worth observing. Lianhe Zaobao correspondent Yang Danxu tells us more.
Members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) march outside the Great Hall of the People on 18 October 2023. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)
Members of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) march outside the Great Hall of the People on 18 October 2023. (Qilai Shen/Bloomberg)

China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu, who has been absent from public view for nearly two months, was officially removed from his position on 24 October. 

In contrast with Qin Gang’s removal as foreign minister two months ago, China’s upper echelons acted swiftly this time around, stripping Li of his position as state councillor as well. Although official sources did not state the reason for Li’s dismissal, the manner in which it was carried out indirectly confirmed the rumours about Li’s corruption charges.   

But unexpectedly, the National People’s Congress meeting held on 24 October did not name a replacement.    

Who will lead the forum?

The Xiangshan Forum, which had been suspended for three years due to the pandemic, is scheduled to open this weekend. In accordance with past practices, the Chinese defence minister would deliver a keynote speech at the forum and meet with various foreign delegations. 

Observers had predicted that a new Chinese defence minister would be announced prior to the Xiangshan Forum. Now, it seems that there is no consensus on the right candidate for the job. 

With the position of defence minister left vacant, it is worth observing what level of officials would be assigned to take charge at the Xiangshan Forum. 

China could assign a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to attend the forum, or it might even up the ante by getting Politburo member and vice-chairman of the CMC General He Weidong to participate in the event...

Singapore's Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen speaking at the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum, on 22 October 2019. (Mindef)
Singapore's Minister for Defence Dr Ng Eng Hen speaking at the 9th Beijing Xiangshan Forum, on 22 October 2019. (Singapore Ministry of Defence)

The 10th Xiangshan Forum is the first time the forum will be held since the pandemic, and official sources stated at the media briefing on 24 October that “the number and level of representatives participating in the forum will reach a record high”. 

As of 23 October, representatives from more than 90 countries and international organisations have confirmed their participation, with 22 representatives at the defence minister level and above, and 14 representatives at the military chief level.  

With numerous defence and military chiefs from various countries gathering in Beijing, it is expected that China as the host would send an official of significant standing to participate in the forum, including giving the keynote speech. 

China could assign a member of the Central Military Commission (CMC) to attend the forum, or it might even up the ante by getting Politburo member and vice-chairman of the CMC General He Weidong to participate in the event, as a sign of how much China values the forum and guests from all over the globe. 

China-US military dialogue and exchange frozen

It is also worth observing the interaction between the Chinese and the US militaries during the Xiangshan Forum.

US soldiers stand next to a Blackhawk helicopter, 24 October 2023. (Christof Stache/AFP)
US soldiers stand next to a Blackhawk helicopter, on 24 October 2023. (Christof Stache/AFP)

Following former US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, China-US military relations have been frozen, with interactions between high-ranking military officials completely halted.

In March 2023, after Li took over from Wei Fenghe as defence minister, there were several reports of the US trying to promote high-level dialogue between both militaries, including a meeting between the Chinese and US defence chiefs on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in June this year in Singapore, to which Beijing had rejected. 

China has repeatedly stated that the prerequisite for a resumption of high-level engagement between the two militaries and for the two defence chiefs to meet is the removal of US sanctions on Li, but Washington did not budge on this either.  

During a defence chiefs’ conference in Fiji in mid-August, vice-chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission General Xu Qiling had an engagement with Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command. Observers saw this as a sign of a revival of dialogue between the Chinese and the US militaries. With Li’s dismissal, a barrier holding up the engagement between the defence chiefs of China and the US is now gone. However, with China’s next defence minister as yet undetermined, a meeting is still up in the air. 

Foreign media reported earlier that while Beijing had originally invited US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to attend the Xiangshan Forum, the US does not intend to send their defence secretary to attend the forum.  

A screen broadcasts news footage of an Air Force aircraft taking part in military drills by the Eastern Theatre Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) around Taiwan, in a shopping area in Beijing, China, 19 August 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)
A screen broadcasts news footage of an Air Force aircraft taking part in military drills by the Eastern Theatre Command of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) around Taiwan, in a shopping area in Beijing, China, on 19 August 2023. (Tingshu Wang/Reuters)

China Daily reported on 24 October that the US defence department will send a delegation led by Cynthia Xanthi Carras, country director for China in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, to attend the forum in Beijing. In addition, Chad Sbragia, former deputy assistant secretary of defence for China in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, who attended the forum’s last gathering in 2019, will also attend the forum as an expert this time.   

As occasional tensions and confrontations between China and the US in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait could easily slip into actual conflict if both sides are not careful...

Multiple complex issues to be discussed

China-US relations are still hovering at a low point and China-US military contacts have yet to be restored, much to the concern of various parties. As US military aircraft and warships maintain operations in the western Pacific to demonstrate its commitment to uphold an open Indo-Pacific region, China has become increasingly intolerant of US warplanes and warships showing up on its doorstep ever so frequently. It has even occasionally resorted to strong-arm tactics such as expulsion.  

Last December, a Chinese Navy J-11 fighter jet intercepted a US Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance plane over the South China Sea, with both aircraft flying less than three metres away from each other in a near collision. In September 2018, Chinese destroyer Lanzhou (170) attempted to drive away American warship USS Decatur in the South China Sea, with both ships coming within 41 metres of each other at one point. 

The Pentagon said in a report released last week that the US has recorded more “coercive and risky air intercepts” by the Chinese military in the past two years than in the previous decade. 

As occasional tensions and confrontations between China and the US in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait could easily slip into actual conflict if both sides are not careful, there is now a greater need for the US and Chinese militaries to establish communication channels as soon as possible to avoid miscalculations that could lead to uncontrollable situations. 

... the US delegation’s participation in the forum is still a positive signal. 

This video frame grab from footage taken and released on 22 October 2023 by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) through the Chinese embassy in Manila shows a collision between a Chinese Coast Guard ship (right) and a Philippine resupply boat (left) during a resupply mission in Second Thomas Shoal, in the disputed South China Sea. (Handout/Chinese Coast Guard/AFP)
This video frame grab from footage taken and released on 22 October 2023 by the Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) through the Chinese embassy in Manila shows a collision between a Chinese Coast Guard ship (right) and a Philippine resupply boat (left) during a resupply mission in Second Thomas Shoal, in the disputed South China Sea. (Handout/Chinese Coast Guard/AFP)

Based on the current members of the US delegation to the Xiangshan Forum, it is unlikely that both militaries will hold high-level dialogues on the sidelines of the forum. However, the US delegation’s participation in the forum is still a positive signal. 

In addition to China-US relations, there are still several pressing world problems that desperately need to be solved. The Russia-Ukraine war, which has been ongoing for over a year, remains in a stalemate, while the Middle East is currently witnessing the Israel-Hamas conflict.

In the Asia-Pacific region, China and the Philippines are experiencing frequent frictions and escalating tensions in the South China Sea. Coupled with the Taiwan issue, which is a perennial part of regional security issues, there is still a lot to discuss at the Xiangshan Forum, which will be held this year after a three-year hiatus.     

Although the Xiangshan Forum does not hold the same esteem and importance as other international security forums, and one cannot expect a three-day forum to find solutions to a complex set of security issues, it is still good for various parties to have an open and honest conversation about these tough issues.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “中国防长被免后香山论坛看什么”.

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