China’s Assertive Military Diplomacy
The meeting between the Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe and the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin during the ASEAN meeting in Cambodia on November 22 indicated that the Chinese military leader has been engaging with foreign counterparts through its assertive military diplomacy.
The Xinhua news agency carried a brief report of the meeting, saying that Wei Fenghe pointed to the important consensus reached by President Xi Jinping and US counterpart Joe Biden during the talks at the 17th Group of 20 Summit. Wei added that the US is “responsible for the current situation in the China-US relations.” According to Wei, China attached importance to the development of relations between the two countries and two militaries, but the precondition is that the US side “must respect China’s core interests.” Wei hoped that the US “could keep its words and promises, truly implement the consensuses reached by the two heads of state and adopt rational and pragmatic policies towards China.” Most importantly, Wei stressed that “the Taiwan question is the core of China’s core interests and the first insurmountable red line in China-US relations” – a remark that echoed what President Xi said in the presidential meeting with Biden. Wei finally emphasized that the “Taiwan is China’s Taiwan, and the settlement of the Taiwan question is the Chinese people’s own affairs and brooks no foreign interference” – another comment that strongly echoed what Xi told Biden. The two sides, according to the Xinhua report, agreed to maintain communications, consolidate crisis management, and retain regional security.
The readout from the US defence Department was a bit more detailed, emphasizing the need for both sides to “responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication.” Moreover, Austin discussed substantive dialogue to reduce risks, improve crisis communications, enhance operational safety, and raised concerns about “the increasingly dangerous behaviour demonstrated by the People’s Liberation Army aircraft in the Indo-Pacific region that increases the risk of an accident.” Austin added that the US will “continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows.” Interestingly, the readout mentioned that both sides “oppose the use of nuclear weapons” in the Russo-Ukrainian conflicts. The US side added its concern about the use of weapons programs by North Korea. Finally, Austin repeated the US commitment to adopting the “longstanding one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three US-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances.” He affirmed the significance of maintaining peace and stability across the strait and opposed any move to change the status quo.
Wei’s military diplomacy has perhaps become a more assertive phenomenon than before since April 2022, when he also had a phone conversation with Austin on April 20 during which both sides emphasized the need to implement their presidential consensuses, namely mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, the avoidance of conflicts, and the need for the US to stick to the one-China policy. The November face-to-face meeting could be seen as an extension of the phone call between the two sides in April.
In April, Wei visited the Iran President Ebrahim Raisi in the dual capacities as a Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister. Both sides agreed to deepen military cooperation amid the context of, according to Global Times on April 28, “an increasingly hostile US and tumultuous global situation.” Wei’s visit was described as the highest-ranking Chinese official visit to Iran after both sides had reached a 25-year Comprehensive Cooperation Agreement. It is noteworthy that both China and Iran oppose unilateralism, hegemonism and external interference, and that Iran supports China’s protection of its core interests. Anti-hegemonism was a common language used by both China and Iran in their official interactions. Other areas of cooperation included anti-terrorism, anti-Covid-19 measures. The anti-terrorism theme was repeated by Wei during his earlier visits to Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan, both are the members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
On April 25, Wei Fenghe met Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev met in Nur-Sultan, emphasizing that both sides would celebrate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations in 2022. Both sides stressed the need to become permanent comprehensive strategic partners and maintain high-level cooperation in international politics. They vowed to strengthen military cooperation in terms of conducting peace-keeping operations, joint exercises, and personnel training. A news report from the Chinese Defence Ministry added that China opposed any foreign country to plan for any “colour revolution” in Kazakhstan and that it supported the latter to protect national security and social stability – again showing the element of anti-hegemonism. Wei also discussed with the Kazakh Defence Minister Ruslan Zhaksylykov on the international and regional security issues, including the Russo-Ukrainian conflicts and the Afghan issue.
On April 27, Wei visited the Turkmenistan President Serdar Berdimuhamedov to strengthen bilateral cooperation. Berdimuhamedov expressed his appreciation of the important relations between the two countries in the dimensions of politics, trade, diplomacy, culture, humanitarian aid and human exchanges. China is one of Turkmenistan’s largest trading partners with more than 1,400 Turkmen students currently studying in China. The President expressed his hope that the two militaries would strengthen cooperation in equipment technology and personnel training. China, according to a CTGN report, supports Turkmenistan’s neutrality and supports its own developmental path while opposing external interference in its domestic affairs. Wei also met Defence Minister Begench Gundogdyev, and both agreed on the need to strengthen military communication, training, and anti-terrorist cooperation.
Wei Fenghe’s assertive military diplomacy could be traced back to December 2021 when he relied on video meetings to interact with his counterparts in various countries. On December 7, 2021, he delivered a speech at the 2021 Seoul United Nations Peacekeeping Ministerial Meeting, saying that China upheld the UN authority and sanctity, supported multilateralism, and deepened cooperation with the UN steadily. He stressed that China has sent over 50,000 peacekeepers to UN peacekeeping operations and that it became the second largest financial contributor to the UN and UN peacekeeping work.
On December 27, 2021, Wei has a video teleconference with his Japanese counterpart Nobuo Kishi for two hours. According to the Japanese Defence Ministry information, both ministers exchanged views on a range of issues, including the East China Sea, the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands, the Taiwan issue, the tension over South China Sea, and the importance of beginning a hotline aerial and maritime communication between the two sides by the end of 2022. The Japanese Defence Ministry said that it opposed any move to change the status quo.
In response to the Japanese concerns, General Wei stressed that, according to the Chinese side’s report, China would firmly safeguard its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests. Wei called on both sides to maintain stability in the East China Sea and he appealed to the Japanese side to learn from history, while affirming the need to consolidate high-level exchanges and cooperation on both sides, including the need to expand the content of maritime and air liaison mechanism to jointly control risks and prevent conflicts escalation. Wei reiterated the Chinese stance on the Taiwan question and the South China Sea issue.
The most important outcome of the video conference meeting was the recognition by both sides to set up the hotline to deal with maritime and aerial communications by the end of 2022 – a breakthrough in both sides to minimize the risks of sudden and accidental military conflicts.
In November 2021, Wei also held a video discussion with his Indonesian counterpart Prabowo Subianto. Both sides vowed to oppose hegemonism and the Cold War mentality and reached consensus on the need to safeguard peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Both sides also worked together to combat Covid-19 and enhance military cooperation through joint military drills and personnel training.
In conclusion, some prominent features came up in Wei’s assertive military diplomacy. During the continuation of Covid-19 by the end of last year, he relied on video conferencing to enhance dialogue and communications with his counterparts in various countries, including Japan where a breakthrough in setting up a hotline to manage aerial and maritime issues could be seen. From April to November 2022, Wei made personal and visits to different countries, having face-to-face contacts with the presidents of different countries in the dual capacities of being a State Councillor and Defence Minister. His April visits to Turkmenistan and Kazakhstan were important and the themes of anti-hegemonism, multilateralism and opposition to external interference marked the feature of China’s assertive military diplomacy. In a sense, the Chinese Defence Minister also conducted united front work on the countries he visited, trying to enhance mutual understanding and consolidate the bond against hegemonism. The recent meeting between Wei and Austin was significant, marking an immediate follow-up meeting to pursue the consensuses reached by President Xi and President Biden. Although both sides reiterated their positions formally in meetings, their determination of building up trust, enhancing communications, and adopting the principle of agreeing to disagree are undoubtedly positive moves forward in the development of Sino-US military relations.