China Wages War of Words in Face of Criticism at Security Conference

Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu delivers his speech on the last day of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual Asian defense and security forum, in Singapore on Sunday.

SINGAPORE — A large number of Chinese military personnel worked in concert on a public relations offensive at the Asia Security Summit, also called the Shangri-La Dialogue, in Singapore. The apparent aim was to prevent U.S. and European criticism of China’s unilateral actions in the Indo-Pacific region from taking root. China also lobbied for stronger security cooperation with emerging and developing countries in an effort to win them over.

The event was held from Friday to Sunday.

China sent a number of senior officers from the Joint Staff Department and researchers from the National Defense University and military research institutes, led by State Councilor and Defense Minister Li Shangfu.

When U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin gave a speech on Saturday, Zhang Chi, an associate professor at the National Defense University, questioned him in English: “On the one hand, you claim to support the centrality of ASEAN [the Association of Southeast Asian Nations] in the region. On the other hand, the U.S. has established multilateral institutions such as Quad [together with Japan, India and Australia] and AUKUS [with the United Kingdom and Australia]. Is there any contradiction between U.S.-led institutions and the centrality of ASEAN in the region?”

A senior military official also held a press conference to rebut U.S. claims, saying that the U.S. side is responsible for the difficulties facing the Sino-U.S. military relationship.

When South Korean Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup took the stage on the same day, a Chinese attendee said, “My question is, to resolve the peninsula crisis, if we only rely on exerting pressure … can we really solve the problem?”

The Chinese government opposes strengthening sanctions against North Korea.

Chinese participants were conspicuous in the question-and-answer periods at each session, weaving China’s position into their questions in an attempt to have their own country’s arguments take hold.

At the event, China’s disregard for international law, as seen in its military intimidation of Taiwan and its moves to change the status quo by force in the South China Sea, has been placed on the agenda. China has successively refuted such criticism, thereby trying to prevent the spread of U.S. and European claims to countries unfamiliar with the situation.

Li arrived in Singapore on Wednesday and held bilateral meetings with Japan, Singapore and other countries during his five-day stay as part of this effort. China’s Ministry of National Defense has released few details. Although Li refused to meet with Austin, his U.S. counterpart, it seems that he actively met with counterparts in other countries, quietly working to break up the U.S.-led encirclement of China.

In his speech on Sunday, Li apparently used many ideological phrases such as “mutual respect” and “equals” to win over emerging and developing countries whose governments tend to dislike interference in the areas of human rights and governance methods.

There is concern that China’s assertions may spread in a style of information warfare that could be described as human-wave tactics. On Sunday, Cambodia’s Defense Minister mentioned that he supports China’s 12-point proposal regarding Russia’s aggression against Ukraine.

“We have not made any progress in resolving issues such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. We should see what China actually does,” a diplomatic source in Beijing said.