Of Half-Elephants. The Beijing Xiangshan Forum and China-US Relations

The foreign policy narrative is often about the elephant in the room. Then again, it may be also about the half-elephant.

While the sessions of the Beijing Xiangshan Forum 2018 touched upon a variety of subjects, encapsulated in long panel titles, one of the dominant subjects was the one unnamed directly in any of the panels: the uncertainty of US-China relations.

The forum is an annual Track 1.5 conference organized by the Chinese Association for Military Science and is, therefore, the military arm in the body of China’s diplomacy. The event brings together security experts and representatives of defence institutions from many countries, including ministers. The forum did not take place in 2017 and was renamed as Beijing Xiangshan Forum (from Xiangshan Forum) in 2018 when it was held for the eight time. Having been to both the previous (October 2016) and the last (October 2018) Xiangshan Forum, I could witness at least some shifts in the emphasis within the Chinese narrative.

As the welcome dinner was opened by Li Zhanshu, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, this high-level official started the speech with a usual, predictable array of very general ideas: world peace, win-win cooperation, Belt and Road Initiative, and so on. China’s development is to world’s benefit, and the other way round, Li stated. But as the chairman moved on, his words became much more straightforward, concrete and strong. As he reconfirmed PRC’s position in five areas of foreign policy, each of those subjects related to the United States, and in four of those cases Li criticized Washington’s position. In two of the five, however, he refrained from uttering the word ‘US’, keeping to an old diplomatic tradition of blaming without naming. Thus, the United States became the half-elephant in the room of Li Zhanshu’s speech: named and blamed in part of the cases, but still blamed in the remaining ones.

Unilateralism is dangerous, Li claimed, and examples of such behavior include ‘moving out of international agreements’ and ‘trade protectionism’, a clear reference to the moves made by US President Donald Trump and his administration in the recent months or years. Li also took care to address the issue of US’ trade deficit with China, obviously replying to criticism related to this issue (‘China did not deliberately seek trade surplus’ with the US, he claimed). In only one case did the chairman praise the Americans: when he claimed Beijing’s support to the US-DPRK dialogue. He also reiterated China’s support for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, a statement which should be read as standing by the recent Singapore agreement (which, by the way, has been later wrongly presented by certain American representatives as an agreement to denuclearize only North Korea).

But this extended hand was paired with a tightly closed fist. Li also reiterated PRC’ stand on the South China Sea and on Taiwan, claiming that there are countries – guess who? – that misuse both of those burning issues for its interests by sending warships to the disputed waters and supporting the ‘separatist’ tendencies in Taiwan. As for the latter subject, the chairman was unsurprisingly uncompromising. ‘There is only one China in the world and Taiwan is an inalienable part of China,’ he stated, adding that the PRC is ready to ‘crush separatist attempts in Taiwan in any form.’

This dove-to-hawk transformation within one speech reminded me of the earlier Xiangshan Forum, when after a full day of all the usual, all-sided talk about peace, prosperity and win-win, a Chinese general stood up to remind everybody that ‘the South China Sea is ours’. By and large, however, the keynote speeches at the 2016 Xiangshan Forum were much more general, referred to different countries and were much more conciliatory towards the US.

This time, the focus on the US was audible not only in Li’s speech. The issue of the South China Sea and the moves of the US Navy there were unsurprisingly mentioned in some of the panel discussions as well. The 2016 forum included a roundtable of young scholars and officers and a televised debate, which addressed a plethora of subjects. In 2018, however, both of these events were more coherent thematically (and hence better), as they revolved around a single question: is a New Cold War between the US and China coming?

Whether it is inevitable, and whether the Cold War serves as a good comparison was a matter of a longer debate, and there were agreeing and disagreeing voices on all sides, including the Western and the Chinese side. Those hoping that a conflict will be avoided usually based their argument in either of the two premises, both of which are not new: that the two powers are too intertwined economically and/or that they will adhere to the rule-based order. Trying to put it in a nutshell, some assumed that it may be of benefit for either China or the US to opt out of at least one of the two – the economic interdependence and the rule-based international order. The Siamese siblings can only properly fight each other if they are first separated. But leaving the debate at this level simplifies global complexities which are being described in tons of more precise articles, reports, and books. Economic interdependence or the international order is not a bus one can simply get off from, or a switch which must be either on or off. While the Xiangshan Forum obviously and understandably gave the most room to present Beijing’s perspective, it is notable that in the case of this debate there was a chance to listen to various, conflicting views.

Each such diplomatic event obviously should not be analyzed in isolation. Being a forum of military and security experts, the Beijing Xiangshan Forum focuses on conflicts and their resolutions. Both the US-China trade war and the economic interdependence, while mentioned, were marginal to the main topics of debate. Moreover, each statement of an official during a diplomatic event serves tactical or strategic purposes of foreign policy (or both). Two years ago, much of the attention at Xiangshan was directed at the planned deployment of the THAAD system by the US in the Republic of Korea. The Russian and the Chinese minister issued a joint statement against THAAD in a room packed with journalists. It was clear that the Russian side was using the forum as a chance to bandwagon with Beijing against Washington. Had one looked at this statement in isolation, it could have been thought that Russia and China are perfect allies (while their relations are much more complicated) and that their conflict with the US over THAAD in South Korea is imminent.

But this subject was all but missing during this year’s forum. In other words: interpreting an event right after it happened, as I am doing now, one risks overstating its importance, and perceiving diplomats’ one-time speeches as bearing strategic gravity, rather than serving tactical goals in an endless push-and-pull game of international relations. At a minimum, however, all of these point out to China’s growing concern about frictions with the US. At the same time, however, the forum was a yet another confirmation that Beijing’s bold behavior is one of the causes of these frictions.

Header Image: CGTN

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