Last weekend, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, the premier Asia-Pacific security forum hosted annually in Singapore by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS). For Li, who assumed his post in March this year, it was his first time representing China at the conference.
But for policy wonks, Li’s speech was also of interest. With Li’s plenary session titled “China’s New Security Initiatives,” the expectation was that Li would finally put some flesh on the bones of the Global Security Initiative – a nebulous but increasingly prominent security vision proposed by top leader Xi Jinping in April 2022. One year later, and the GSI still remains frustratingly hard to pin down, despite the issuance of a formal concept paper in February 2023. Like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) before it, the GSI seems to be more of a branding exercise – lumping existing security cooperation efforts in under a grand title – than anything else.
At the beginning of his SLD speech, Li promised to “share… China’s idea on how to flesh out the GSI.” But anyone expecting solid, concrete proposals would be disappointed.
Most of Li’s speech was a lengthy diatribe attempting to convince the audience that the United States is solely responsible for the spike in tensions in the region (though Li never named it, using the thinly veiled euphemisms of “some country” and “some big power”). Li framed the first part of his speech around the question, “Who is disrupting the peace in the region?” The answer, according to Beijing, is obviously Washington.
In that vein, China’s vision for security is almost entirely negative – framed around what China doesn’t want, which Li discussed in detail at the beginning of his speech. The points raised will be familiar to even casual observers of Chinese foreign policy: objections to “bullying and hegemony,” interference “in other countries’ internal affairs,” “double standards,” and an “intensifying arms race.”
But what does China want? What is the positive vision?
Toward the end of the speech, Li did offer four avenues for building what he called “an open, including, transparent, and equitable” security architecture.
First, he said China was willing to “work with all other parties to build strong security and confidence building systems.” Li particularly mentioned boosting consultations with countries that have territorial or maritime disputes with China (which would include India, Vietnam, and the Philippines, among others). More generally, he proposed to “manage risks and crises by advancing air and maritime security talks and strictly following and continuously improving the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea or CUES.”
Second, Li said China would “promote more equitable security rules.” Earlier in his speech, Li complained that “some countries” (read: the United States) that promote the “so called rules-based international order… never tell you what the rules are and who made these rules.” He also complained about “exceptionalism” and “double standards,” where rules are not applied equally to all countries. China wants to address those concerns by promoting a new vision for “security rules.”
However, Li reassured the audience that China does not want to entirely overturn the existing order: “setting security rules does not mean reinventing the wheel or overturning the existing rules.” As always, China claims the U.N. Charter as the foundation for its envisioned global order, including the push for new security rules. And Li noted that China wanted to “address security issues in emerging areas” and “explore the formulation of rules for space, cyber, and biological security” – areas where robust global rules and norms don’t yet exist.
Third, Li said China would work to “improve multilateral security mechanisms.” Li’s overview of the topic, however, seemed to suggest that he really means “multilateral security dialogues,” as most of his examples fall into that category: ADMM and ADMM-Plus, the ASEAN Regional Forum, and the Shangri-La Dialogue itself. This is not a call for multilateral groupings of military allies, in other words.
In terms of actual on-the-ground security cooperation, Li specifically mentioned the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). However, multilateral security cooperation in both groups is nascent, which Li acknowledged; the goal for now is “institutional building.”
Fourth and finally, Li said China would “carry out more effective defense and security cooperation,” largely through joint exercises. Here, Li particularly emphasized China’s focus on capacity building in “non-traditional security challenges,” including “counterterrorism, maritime security, and HADR” (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief).
Looking at the concrete proposals, there’s a huge amount of common ground here between China and the United States. The Biden administration has repeatedly called for “guard rails” to prevent the China-U.S. tensions from going off the road into full-on conflict. Those guard rails, in practice, sound an awful lot like Li’s proposals: dialogue and confidence-building measures, negotiating rules of the road for emerging domains like cyberspace, and actively engaging in multilateral forums.
The problem, however, is that Li buried these points between lengthy, aggressive diatribes: the first aimed at the United States and the latter issuing an open threat against Taiwan. Those are the portions of the speech making headlines, and they will inevitably muddy the waters for any real effort at confidence building and negotiating acceptable limits for behavior in cyberspace and outer space.
In the Q&A session that followed Li’s speech, several speakers questioned the apparent gap between China’s rhetoric and its behavior.
For example, despite mentioned the need for engagement and confidence building in his speech, Li refused to meet with his U.S. counterpart, and the Pentagon has repeatedly complained about not being able to get hold of Chinese officials. Li was directly asked about why China “continues to refuse the United States’ requests to engage in military-to-military communication.”
He gave an oblique response:
So far, our two countries and two militaries have smooth communications about channels at different levels. But we have our principles to communication. We hope our exchanges, cooperation will be based on mutual respect. That is a very fundamental principle… Mutual respect and equality should be the foundation for our communications.
It sounds like Li is suggesting dialogue mechanisms between the militaries are based on some undefined notion of “respect” for China. That is backed up by history; when the United States takes steps that China finds objectionable – often involving interactions with Taiwan, for example – military-to-military contacts are generally the first to be severed. China apparently views such dialogues as a reward for “good” behavior by the United States, rather than intrinsically valuable for their own part. (The Biden administration apparently takes the latter view, although that has brought it in for criticism at home for sacrificing other objectives in pursuit of dialogue for dialogue’s sake.)
Li was also asked several times about a dangerous run-in between the U.S. and Chinese navies in the Taiwan Strait, as well as aggressive behavior toward other countries’ fishing vessels in the South China Sea. The questioners asked how to square those actions with Li’s stated commitment to following CUES and other codes of conduct for close encounters.
Disturbingly, when pushed, Li seemed incredibly dismissive of such rules. “To truly prevent such incidents in the future, we not only need the codes. We have, already have [the codes],” he said. “The best way is for other countries… not to do close-in actions around other countries’ territories.”
Or, as he put it more bluntly a few sentences later: “mind your own business” and “your own territorial airspace and waters.”
That certainly doesn’t raise confidence that China is serious about setting rules of engagement to avoid a major crisis. Instead, it’s an implicit threat: as long as the United States continues to operate near China’s shores, the risk of war will continue to escalate.