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Chinese Lt. Gen. Le Hei, center, on Sunday at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
Politics

China tries to play nice at key security forum

Beijing eager to warm ties with US, but refuses to back down on core interests

SINGAPORE -- Although China attempted to strike a more conciliatory tone in this year's Shangri-La Dialogue, a major Asian security forum held here through Sunday, officials' uncompromising comments on Taiwan and the South China Sea only highlighted its rifts with the international community ahead of the key Communist Party meeting in the fall.

For the previous four years, China had sent the deputy chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission, who reemphasized Beijing's various claims at a plenary session. In 2015, Adm. Sun Jianguo stressed that Beijing's island-building activities in the South China Sea were "legitimate, justified and reasonable." China "cannot permit its sovereignty and security rights and interests to be encroached upon," he said in 2016.

But this year, the Chinese delegation was headed by a lower-ranking officer, Lt. Gen. He Lei. The vice president of the Academy of Military Science made no plenary speeches, and kept most of his 10 or so bilateral meetings closed to the public. He also gave few answers to reporters' questions.

President Xi Jinping appears to have decided to scale back China's rhetoric to preserve relations with the global community, particularly as he tries to solidify ties with the U.S. ahead of the Communist Party congress held once every five years. Beijing agreed with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations on key issues toward a code of conduct in the South China Sea, a Chinese military officer at Shangri-La said, stressing that countries with overlapping claims in the waters were making progress on settling the issue by themselves.

On the other hand, Chinese representatives spared no words defending Beijing's core interests. When U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis suggested that the U.S. provide arms to Taiwan, He held a news conference stressing China's opposition to such measures and the need for bilateral cooperation with Washington. Mattis was not expected to comment on Taiwan, a Chinese military officer said.

The Chinese were vocal on the South China Sea as well. When the Malaysian defense minister said a Beijing-led code of conduct would not completely prevent a clash in the waters, a Chinese officer immediately hit back, questioning what a "perfect" code would look like. 

China tried to keep a relatively low profile this year, but it did not concede on its "red line," a Southeast Asian military officer said. The officer expected Beijing to continue militarizing the South China Sea regardless of its position at Shangri-La.

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