The 2018 Xiangshan Forum: Regional Issues and the North Korean Entrance

The Xiangshan Forum is being held in Beijing from October 24 to 26, 2018. Together with the Shangri-La Dialogue which is held in Singapore, these two dialogues are East Asia’s premier security forums. The 2018 Xiangshan Forum aims to talk peace, lower misunderstandings, clarify issues and discuss cooperation as it emphasizes and stresses on win-win cooperation and building up mutual trust. Another important topic that is being discussed is the advent of Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) and how it will impact on politics, international relations, society and the economy. The focus on A.I. gives the Xiangshan Forum a futuristic technological edge and a progressive agenda.

The main organizing entity of the Xiangshan Forum is the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Academy of Military Science. The sponsors of the 2018 Forum are the Chinese Association for Military Science (CAMS) and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies (CIISS). One represents the military and the other is associated with foreign diplomacy. In other words, both the doves and hawks are present in the Forum that was founded in 2006. In 2014 it became an annual event from a twice a year event. The track level probably edged towards the 1.5 track from a Track II one. From the Chinese perspective, the upgrading of the importance of the Xiangshan Forum reflects the Chinese leadership’s growing emphasis on highlighting global and regional issues from the Chinese perspective at multilateral security forums.

The Xiangshan Forum was cancelled in 2017 in order to cool down temperatures in the Northeast Asian region. This was to pacify China’s neighbors who felt threatened by the Forum. In addition to peripheral countries, Beijing also wanted to tone down the show of solidarity between Beijing and Moscow to defuse tensions with the US in 2017. In 2018, Moscow and Beijing appeared to be equally concerned with the US decision to pull out of missile treaties signed during the Cold War. In other words, there appears to be more factors to push Russia and Beijing closer. The 2017 cancellation makes the 2018 event all the more important since issues that may have had no air time in the past year are heard regionally and discussed frankly. Defusing tensions is pretty much on the plates of the Xiangshan Forum. 30 countries and 15 Ministers of Defense are present at the Forum. The participation of some attendees has drawn disproportionate attention from international and regional observers.

What has attracted the attention of international observers is Pyongyang sending a delegation to Beijing to attend the Xiangshan Forum. It is interesting that the delegation is led by two heavyweights. One is Deputy Director Song Il Hyok who represents the Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ (MOFA) Institute for Disarmament and Peace. Song is a major advocate of the peace treaty signing between the Washington DC and Pyongyang. Deputy Director Song wants an end to the first hot conflict of the Cold War and last one that remains unresolved. The other high-profile individual from North Korea is Vice Minister Kim Hyong Ryong who represents the People’s Armed Forces. Again, this dichotomy represents the military/security and diplomacy/cooperation branches of the Xiangshan Forum. The event comprehensively engages people who defend the peace and diplomats who negotiate for regional peace.

While the Xiangshan Forum is about peace and security, some members of China’s elite leadership trot out words of caution in highlighting what the Chinese consider as important security and diplomatic priorities.

Vice Minister Kim is very familiar with China and the PLA. Kim has represented the North Koreans in Chinese embassy events celebrating North Korean military anniversaries. There is personal rapport between him and his Chinese counterparts. While conversations between the North Koreans and the Chinese are not completely disclosed, the North Koreans’ discussions with the Chinese on bilateral military cooperation is well expected on the quiet sideline of the main discussions in the Xiangshan Forum. Only the stakeholders in the informal conversation will know the exact details of such corridor diplomacy. Again, while it will not be readily disclosed, an inter-Korean meeting happening in Beijing may also be on the sideline of the Xiangshan Forum since South Korea has also dispatched a team to the Xiangshan Forum.

The sideline of the 2018 Xiangshan Forum is not just about hush-hush diplomacy. Some educational events have also been organized, such as seminars for junior strategic scholars and military officials still learning the ropes of their professional trade. Besides the North Koreans, the other guest that has attracted attention is Nepal’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Ishwar Pokhrel. Nepal’s entrance and appearance at the Forum is being watched closely due to the traditional Indian influence over the South Asian region. Such high-profile debuts, whether by the North Korean senior figures or the Nepalese appearance, can contribute to more understanding and peace if the participants can have meaningful conversations with fellow stakeholders at the table.

The Xiangshan Forum is also an opportunity to re-affirm friendship and cooperation between old friends. China immediately gets down to business with its Asian counterparts in terms of strengthening bilateral cooperation. China State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe has met with Cambodian Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for National Defense Tea Banh to strengthen the strategic partnership between the two countries. (It may be useful to note that Chinese State Councilor generally are ranked higher than a Minister of Foreign Affairs in the Chinese political context). Deputy Prime Minister Tea Banh has also reaffirmed his country’s one China policy and committed to bilateral military cooperation between the two countries. Cambodia is generally viewed as the strongest ally for China within ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations). Thus, such interactions serve to re-affirm already strong ties between the two.

The re-affirmation of friendship is extended by Beijing to countries in other continents as well. For example, the Nigerian Minister of Defence Mansur Dan Ali has two portfolios of security expertise as well as business negotiator. Both China and Nigeria are keen to strengthen cooperation in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Nigeria has also expressed its interest in strengthening military ties with China. Such encounters provide a soft contour to the hard edges of a security meeting. Business deals that are made though the BRI are equivalent to building a form of strategic link that may be considered a form of economic diplomacy.

While the Xiangshan Forum is about peace and security, some members of China’s elite leadership trot out words of caution in highlighting what the Chinese consider as important security and diplomatic priorities. Li Zhanshu (the chairperson of the standing committee for the National People’s Congress, one of the two Chinese equivalents of a parliament) pointed out China’s opposition to unilateralism in a speech delivered during the welcome dinner. Li’s speech appears to be targeting the US presence in the South China Sea through its freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), although direct connections are not made. His words will be analyzed carefully by all stakeholders in the Xiangshan Forum and international media, especially given the recent USS Decatur encounter that was widely broadcasted in the national and global mass media. Ultimately, the Xiangshan Forum when accompanied by frank dialogue and greater interactions, may clarify issues, make connections between countries and build bridges when the conditions are right.