Wei has his say: China’s defense minister finally had his turn on stage at the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue on Sunday, and after listening to the United States scold China for two days, Gen. Wei Fenghe came prepared with Beijing’s own perspective — or what many later called pure propaganda — on a long list of contentious issues between the two powers.
Criticism for the U.S.: “We hold different views with the U.S. side on several issues, and firmly oppose its wrong words and actions concerning Taiwan and the South China Sea,” said Wei, leading into a speech that pushed back against many Trump administration positions and the president’s combative rhetoric. “Chinese people know only too well the value of peace and the cruelty and destructiveness of war. Over the years, some have been recklessly hyping up, exaggerating and dramatizing the ‘China threat theory,’ partly due to the lack of understanding of China’s history, culture and policies, but more likely due to misunderstanding, prejudice, or even a hidden agenda.”
We’re only about peace — it’s in our constitution! Wei came armed with talking points, arguing that China is no colonizer or militarizing force, rather it’s only building defensive capabilities and seeking to prosper. “China shall follow the path of peaceful development, which is a solemn commitment to the Chinese people and the people of the world,” Wei continued, adding that this commitment is written into the constitution of the Chinese Communist Party. “If this is not even convincing enough for some people, then we don’t know what they would believe?”
One answer: “Tell that to Vietnam, India and South Korea,” wrote Georgetown’s Oriana Skylar Mastro, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, from inside the room.
Mil-to-mil, things are ok: ICYMI, Wei also said Chinese and U.S. military leaders will continue their strategic-level communications. That’s an important point, given that not too long ago during the Obama administration China cut off all military ties for lesser disagreements than the ones between the Pentagon and PLA today. “The two sides recognize that military conflicts or even a war between them would bring disasters to both countries and the world. It takes two to cooperate, but only one to start a fight.” Wei said China hopes the U.S. plays nice, too. That’s good, but…
Shots fired across Trump’s bow: “No country should ever expect China to allow its sovereignty, security and development interests to be infringed upon. As for the recent trade friction started by the U.S., if the U.S. wants to talk, we will keep the door open. If they want a fight, we will fight till the end.”
Great power, great propaganda: Wei’s performance as a communicator impressed the room. (Straits Times’ associate editor called it a “masterful performance.”) He stayed longer than planned, responding to two rounds of questions and comments from probably 20 delegates, including on the most sensitive issues. Of course, how he answered those concerns left many delegates and observers shaking their heads in disbelief. Wei misrepresented history, law, and facts without hesitation, doing the job he clearly came to do: change the narrative about China.
On Taiwan, of the people, by the people…? You heard him right. Wei compared Taiwan to the rebel, slave-owning American South of the 1800s. “Not a single country in the world would tolerate secession. I visited the U.S. last year. American friends told me that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American president because he led the country to victory in the Civil War and prevented the secession of the U.S. The U.S. is indivisible; so is China. China must be and will be reunified. We find no excuse not to do so. If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China, the Chinese military has no choice but to fight at all costs for national unity…We make no promise to renounce the use of force.”
On the South China Sea: In short, China’s not expanding because the land is already theirs, and so you can’t say they’re militarizing when they’re just building defensive bases on their own land — that’s the line Wei stuck with: “The problem, however, is that in recent years some countries outside the region come to the South China Sea to flex muscles, in the name of freedom of navigation.”
On Tiananmen’s 30th anniversary: Best Question Award goes to Sophia Yan, the Telegraph’s Beijing correspondent, who asked the general whether the PLA finally would acknowledge its massacre. Wei’s jaw-dropper answer: “How can we say that China did not handle the Tiananmen incident well?… That incident was a political turbulence and the central government took measures to stop the turbulence, which is a correct policy.” BBC took notice, here.
On Uighurs and Xinjiang: The biggest gasps came when Wei said China’s crackdown on thousands of alleged “terrorists” was a good thing because tourism, and called concentration camps “vocational education.” State media loved it, tweeting the clip here. Yan, who asked the Tiananmen question, quickly posted video she shot from the region of what she reports is a concentration camp guard tower, here (just check out her feed.) Wrote IISS’s Kori Schake : “@sophia_yan shows us all how journalism is done, pressing Chinese Defense Minister to acknowledge Tiananmen (brave, too, since she’s Beijing-based).” Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin had one word for Wei: “Sick.” Other reactions here and story here.
Views from down under: Here’s how several Aussie observers greeted Wei’s words:
- “Winner of the George Orwell Prize at #SLD19 give it up for Gen Wei!” says Nick Bisely of Australia’s @Latrobe University
- “Forthright. Direct. Unapologetic. Jovial. Immensely empowered,” says Ashely Townsend of Australia’s United States Studies Centre. “A very effective performance — leaving the whole room enthralled, worried in equal measure.”
- Wei was “starkly confrontational” compared to Shanahan, said Rory Medcalf, professor and head of National Security College, Australian National University.
From Defense One
Shanahan ‘Not Planning’ USS McCain Investigation, But Still Reviewing Facts // Katie Bo Williams: “There’s no restriction on how people can send email,” the acting defense secretary said.
This is the third and final edition of a special edition of D Brief: IISS Shangri-La Dialogue, coming to your inbox direct from the largest annual conference of Asia-Pacific defense ministers, in Singapore. By Kevin Baron and Bradley Peniston.
Singapore’s Reaction: The country’s Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen used his Saturday speech to argue, as Channel News Asia put it, that the U.S. and China should offer “moral justification” for countries to accept their dominance in Asia, warning of a reduction in this acceptance if their interests go against the collective good.” Read on, here.
A sampling of the global media’s takes on Shangri-la:
- New York Times: “Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan sought to lower the temperature on the Trump administration’s stew of hostilities with China on Friday, saying it was imperative to look for ways for the two competing militaries to “create upside” in their relationship, even in the middle of a trade war.”
- Reuters: “While Shanahan’s speech was critical of China, his tone was often conciliatory. Wei took a more combative approach.”
- South China Morning Post: “China used the Shangri-La Dialogue to reinforce its stance on sensitive security issues such as the South China Sea and Taiwan, but tight media control undermined its efforts to show openness.”
Readouts, so many readouts: We hate readouts. They’re a PR tool to let the public know that a public official met with a foreign official, but only give you the most vague and safest explanation of the topics they discussed, while allowing them to have private meetings. Pentagon officials have posted readouts of Shanahan’s many meetings. Get those here.
From the horses’ mouths: Here are some transcripts of speeches and Q&A sessions:
- Patrick M Shanahan, U.S. acting defense secretary
- Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s national defense minister and state councilor
- Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister
- Haji Mohamad Sabu, Malaysian defense minister
- Penny Mordaunt, UK secretary of state for defense
- Florence Parly, French armed forces minister
- Jeong Kyeong-Doo, South Korea’s national defense minister
- Takeshi Iwaya, Japan’s defense minister
- Federica Mogherini, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs And Security Policy and European Commission vice president
- After the speeches, the three officials took questions from the audience. Read a transcript, here.
And finally… Stay tuned this week for a special edition Defense One Radio podcast recorded live in Singapore with guests Under Secretary of State Andrea Thompson, a former Army intel officer-turned VP Mike Pence political advisor-turned diplomat, on what to expect in arms control treaties this year, and how she’s navigating (partisan) politics and global security; and IISS’s Schake, with a frank review of Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan’s performance and the problem with Asian leaders framing the U.S.-China story as a rift between two equals. Schake lamented how some things stay the same — including the inability for Asian nations in China’s shadow to form a cohesive security collective. As Straits Times’ Ravi Vellor wrote, “Unable to jell militarily, the region has no option but to stand by and allow a widening band of outside players to enter the arena in the name of security.” Assuredly, that trend is likely to continue through to next year’s Shangri-La conference, which is brought to by IISS, a think tank based… in London. Until next time, thanks for reading.
Corrected Version: The above article is the final version of this D Brief edition, replacing an earlier draft version that was published erroneously.