Li Shangfu | The General’s warning

In his first major international speech since taking office, China’s Defence Minister assails the ‘rules-based order’ and an international system ’that only serves the interests of a small number of countries’

Updated - June 11, 2023 05:34 pm IST

Published - June 11, 2023 01:12 am IST

“The so-called rules-based international order,” said Li Shangfu, China’s new Defence Minister, taking the stage at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore on June 4, “never tells you what the rules are, and who made these rules.” “It practises exceptionalism and double standards,” continued the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General, “and only serves the interests and follows the rules of a small number of countries.”

The Shangri-La speech was Gen. Li’s first major international event since his appointment as Defence Minister in March by Chinese leader Xi Jinping, who also heads the Central Military Commission. It may also be remembered as among the defining foreign policy speeches of Mr. Xi’s third term and his second decade at the helm.

Indeed, the Chinese General seemed to be channelling Mr. Xi’s voice in painting a picture of a world divided and in disorder, and without ever directly naming China’s great rival, the U.S., making the case for Beijing’s leadership. He also drew China’s red lines, appearing to address Washington. “If anyone dares to split Taiwan from China,” he said, “the Chinese military will resolutely safeguard China’s national sovereignty and territorial integrity without any hesitation, at all cost, and not fearing any opponent.”

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The darker notes of Gen. Li’s speech were very much in sync with Mr. Xi’s recent messaging. If the diplomacy of Mr. Xi’s second term was marked by a dominant — and largely optimistic — theme of building what he called “a community of shared destiny”, the 20th Party Congress of last October, which marked the start of the third term, has heralded a more downbeat assessment from the Chinese leadership of the state of the world today.

Only four days before Gen. Li’s Shangri-La speech, Mr. Xi chaired the first meeting of the National Security Commission of his third term, warning of “the complicated and challenging circumstances facing national security”. “Security” has been the emphasis both at the Party Congress and at the March session of Parliament, or National People’s Congress (NPC), amid a significant policy shift from China’s reform-era focus on “development” to a new approach that places equal emphasis on security and development. In other words, opening up and economic development cannot come at the cost of “security”.

At the NPC, Mr. Xi unusually directly mentioned the U.S., saying, “Western countries, led by the U.S., have implemented all-round containment and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to the country’s development”. Self-reliance in key critical industries was a theme at this year’s NPC — including for the military in strategic industries.

Rise to the top

Gen. Li’s appointment in March as China’s next Defence Minister — and as one of the new members of the Central Military Commission (CMC) — was seen by some observers as unexpected given Mr. Xi’s preference for Generals with combat experience, but it is very much in keeping with the current focus on waging wars not only on the battlefield but also in the technology domain.

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He is the first of China’s Defence Ministers to come from the aerospace sector, having served in the PLA’s Equipment Development Department. According to an official biography, Gen. Li, 65, joined the PLA in 1982, after graduating with a Doctor of Engineering degree from Chongqing University’s Department of Control Theory and Control Engineering.

He spent most of his career — 31 years — working at the Xichang satellite launch base in southwest Sichuan province, a key centre for both the space programme and military launches. China’s space programme remains closely tied to the military, so much so that the May 30 launch of the Shenzhou-16 mission made news for carrying the first ever civilian astronaut into space.

Gen. Li came into the spotlight when, at the start of Mr. Xi’s second term in 2017, he was appointed to head the Equipment Development Department of the CMC. The following year, he found himself sanctioned by the U.S. under the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act of 2017 (CAATSA), when Washington listed 33 people “for being a part of, or operating for or on behalf of, the defence or intelligence sectors of the Government of the Russian Federation”. The announcement added that “the Secretary of State imposed sanctions on the Chinese entity Equipment Development Department and its director, Li Shangfu, for engaging in significant transactions with persons” on the list and those transactions “involved Russia’s transfer to China of Su-35 combat aircraft and S-400 surface-to-air missile system-related equipment”. Fast forward five years, and the U.S. found itself dealing with Gen. Li as the public face of the Chinese military at a time of heightened tensions between the world’s two biggest powers. Leading up to the Singapore dialogue, Washington had sought a meeting between Gen. Li and Secretary of Defence Gen. (retd) Lloyd Austin to cool down tensions. The message from China appeared to be that a meeting would be impossible unless the sanctions were removed. In the end, both only managed a handshake without holding talks.

‘Mind your own business’

The need for dialogue had, however, made itself all too clear after two run-ins between the American and Chinese militaries in the days before the handshake, in the waters and skies above the South China Sea. First, video released by the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command showed a Chinese J-16 flying right in front of an American surveillance aircraft before turning abruptly, leaving the U.S. plane shaking in its wake turbulence. The U.S. called the manoeuvre “unnecessarily aggressive”. Then, days later, a Chinese destroyer sailed right across a U.S. guided-missile destroyer, coming within 137 metres. Both incidents raised the prospect of a kinetic clash or accident that could see relations spiral out of control.

Asked about Beijing rebuffing Washington’s requests for dialogue amid the recent incidents, Gen. Li was unmoved at the dialogue. “Every day,” he was quoted as saying by the South China Morning Post, “I see a lot of information about foreign vessels and fighter jets coming to areas near our territory. They are not here for innocent passage. They are here for provocation.”

“The best way to prevent incidents,” he continued, “is for other countries, especially their Naval vessels and fighter jets, to not manoeuvre close to other countries’ territories. What’s the point in going there? In China, we always say, ‘mind your own business’.”

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