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China to send defence minister to Singapore security conference as tensions with US rise

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 22/5/2019 Minnie Chan
a person in a suit sitting at a table: General Wei Fenghe will be the first Chinese defence minister to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue in eight years. Photo: Reuters © Reuters General Wei Fenghe will be the first Chinese defence minister to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue in eight years. Photo: Reuters

China is sending its defence minister to a leading Asian security forum next week, the first time in eight years that a high-ranking Chinese general will represent the country at the conference.

General Wei Fenghe, a State Councillor and China’s defence minister, will speak at the three-day Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, a gathering that comes as Beijing and Washington are at odds over issues ranging from security to trade.

“In a highly anticipated speech, General Wei Fenghe will speak on China’s role in the Indo-Pacific at a pivotal time for the region,” the International Institute for Strategic Studies, an organiser of the conference, said on Monday night.

Chinese military sources said that Wei would lead a “relatively big” delegation to the gathering, which starts on May 31 and is co-organised by the Singaporean government.

The last time Beijing sent a high-ranking officer to the event was in 2011 when General Liang Guanglie, then the defence minister, attended.

Acting US secretary of defence Patrick Shanahan will also attend the conference and deliver a speech.

Beijing-based military specialist Zhou Chenming said observers would be watching to see whether the two senior defence officials held talks.

“The whole world will keep a close eye on any possible encounters between the Chinese and the Americans … At least now China has shown its sincerity in sending Wei to attend the conference, who is of equal standing as Shanahan, if the latter is willing to hold talks with him in good faith,” Zhou said.

But he said a meeting between Wei and Shanahan would be difficult because of the current distance between Beijing and Washington on major issues.

“It’s not realistic to expect they will make a breakthrough because both sides will just sound their own bugles. The … mistrust between China and the US is actually growing every day,” Zhou said.

Just on Sunday, the USS Preble, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, sailed within 12 nautical miles of the Scarborough Shoal, an area in the South China Sea claimed by both China and the Philippines.

The Chinese foreign ministry responded on Monday by strongly urging “the US to stop such provocative actions” and saying it would “take all necessary measures” to protect its “national sovereignty”.

Military analysts said the size of the Chinese delegation at the conference would underscore the importance of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) attached to the event this year.

One military insider said the delegation would also include Lieutenant General He Lei, former vice-president of the Academy of Military Science, who headed China’s delegation in 2017 and 2018; and Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, director of the defence ministry’s Centre for Security Cooperation. In addition, the PLA would send a number of Chinese academics to speak at various sessions of the forum.

Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong will deliver a keynote speech on the opening day of the annual dialogue.

Japan and South Korea are also sending their defence ministers, according to a report by The Korean Times on Tuesday. The report also said South Korean Defence Minister Jeong Kyeong-doo was keen to hold one-on-one meetings with his Chinese and Japanese counterparts on the sidelines of the conference.

This article originally appeared on the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the leading news media reporting on China and Asia. 

Copyright (c) 2019. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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