Asia Pacific

Chinese defense chief close to Xi to attend key Asia security forum next month

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

China’s Defense Minister will deliver a “highly anticipated” speech at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue next month — the first time in eight years that Beijing has sent such a high-level official to the annual security gathering, which will include a speech by the acting U.S. defense secretary.

The International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) think tank said in a statement late Monday that Chinese defense chief Gen. Wei Fenghe, who also serves as State Councillor and is close to Chinese President Xi Jinping, will deliver the speech June 2.

Wei will speak on China’s place in the Indo-Pacific region and will take questions directly following his address, which is expected to be a prelude to the country’s new defense white paper due out later this year.

IISS Director-General John Chipman said Wei will be leading the Chinese People’s Liberation Army delegation, a shift from prior summits which saw Beijing dispatch only lower level officials.

“In a highly anticipated speech, Gen. Wei Fenghe will speak on China’s role in the Indo-Pacific at a pivotal time for the region,” Chipman said in the statement. “His presence at the dialogue provides a unique opportunity for those in attendance to engage with a leading figure within the PLA.”

In 2012, Wei was the first officer formally elevated to the highest rank by Xi in the president’s new role as military chief.

Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya could also hold his first meeting with his South Korea counterpart on the sidelines of the security forum, Kyodo News reported earlier this month, citing a senior Japanese official.

Bilateral tensions have been running high since a South Korean destroyer allegedly locked its fire-control radar on a Japanese patrol plane last December, in addition to friction over long-standing wartime issues.

The Shangri-La Dialogue is billed as “Asia’s premier defense summit,” where top officials, military chiefs and leaders from across the region and beyond “engage in open debate and bilateral talks aimed at enhancing their collaboration in response to the Indo-Pacific’s diverse security problems.”

The security forum will run from May 31 to June 2 at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is scheduled to open the event with a keynote speech on May 31 and U.S. Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan will deliver a speech.

The announcement of Wei’s attendance comes amid Beijing’s protracted trade war with the United States, as well as military tensions with the U.S. in the contested South China Sea.

On Sunday, the U.S. Navy sailed a warship near the disputed Scarborough Shoal, a strategic flash point in the South China Sea claimed by Beijing, Taipei and Manila, and located just 230 km (140 miles) off the Philippine coast.

That operation, which the U.S. said was part of “freedom of navigation operations” that “challenge excessive maritime claims and preserve access” to international waterways, was the second FONOP in the South China Sea this month.

Experts say it is unusual for the U.S. to conduct more than one such operation in a single month, let alone in roughly the same area.

Washington has lambasted Beijing for its moves in the South China Sea, including the construction of man-made islands, some of which are home to military-grade airfields and advanced weaponry. The U.S. fears the outposts could be used to restrict free movement in the waterway — which includes vital sea lanes through which about $3 trillion in global trade passes each year — and regularly conducts FONOPs in the area.