In his first outing at the Shangri-La Dialogue, Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe offered China’s vision of an alternative regional order to that of the United States – the building of an Asia-Pacific community with a shared future.
Speaking on the last day of the security summit on Sunday (June 2), he noted that the US had given its perspective on regional affairs and went on to criticise it.
“We believe that any such perspective should take into account the common security and interests of regional countries,” he said.
“No approaches to regional issues should resort to military blocs, nor should they undermine the interests of others.”
Acting US Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan had on Saturday laid out the US’ vision of a Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, which to some Chinese scholars is a concept meant to constrain China’s rise.
The US also released a report on the strategy on the same day, in which it said it wanted to build a networked security architecture to address challenges such as a more assertive China and maintain peace, stability and growing prosperity in the region.
Tellingly, General Wei did not mention the Indo-Pacific Strategy by name, choosing instead to downplay it.
In his speech, he said China chose peace and development over those who “deliberately create division and hostility, provoke confrontation, meddle with regional affairs, interfere in internal affairs of others and frequently resort to arms”.
He also criticised the unilateralism of the US, saying it puts its interests before those of others and called instead for openness and inclusiveness.
He said win-win cooperation a mantra of the Chinese makes the pie bigger and brings benefits to all while a zero-sum game “makes no winner and harms the interests of both sides”.
An example of win-win cooperation was China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to build infrastructure such as ports, railways, roads and industrial parks linking China to the rest of Asia, Africa and Europe, he said, noting that more than 150 countries have joined it.
He omitted to say, however, that while the BRI has been welcomed by many developing countries, there has been some scepticism as well, as it could land countries in unsustainable debt.
Gen Wei also contrasted China’s belief that human civilisations should be equal, inclusive and willing to learn from each other with that of the West, which he labelled “the decadent idea of ‘clash of civilisations'”.
Based on these broad ideas of win-win, inclusiveness, peaceful development and mutual learning across civilisations, Gen Wei spoke about China working with the armed forces of other Asia-Pacific countries to “jointly respond to challenges, promote the building of an Asia-Pacific community with a shared future and safeguard peace and stability in the region”.
The idea of building a community with a shared future has been raised many times by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Commenting, Associate Professor Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said Gen Wei did not flesh out the idea more fully.
“He gave some big ideas but I think many in the audience didn’t fully understand what the specific policy proposals or ideas are” for a new regional security order, said Prof Li.