By Yew Lun Tian
BEIJING (Reuters) -Beijing Xiangshan Forum, China’s biggest annual show of military diplomacy, started on Sunday, although the Asian power is still missing a defence minister, who typically hosts this event.
China hopes to use the forum to promote President Xi Jinping’s vision for a safer world and draw developing countries closer, as it faces increased coordination between the United States and its allies to curtail its military ambitions.
Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu was initially listed in the forum’s agenda as the first guest speaker at Monday’s opening ceremony, a sign that suggests China intends to give Russia, which invaded in Ukraine in 2022, centre stage at the forum. But as of Sunday, Shoigu’s name was not on the agenda.
The U.S. defence department has sent a delegation led by Xanthi Carras, China country director in the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense.
This year’s forum takes place at an awkward time for China, when it is without a defence minister, whose main role is to engage with foreign militaries.
On Tuesday, Beijing sacked defence minister Li Shangfu but did not name a replacement. Reuters reported last month that Li, who has been missing for two months, was being investigated for corruption.
Chinese military leaders more senior than the defence minister have filled in for Li. State media reported that Zhang Youxia and He Weidong, ranked number two and three in the military, separately held bilateral meetings with the defence ministers from Laos, Mongolia and Vietnam on Saturday.
Zhang is due to make a speech at a dinner reception on Sunday and also give the keynote address on Monday, a task performed by the defence minister in previous years.
State news agency Xinhua reported that the number and level of foreign participants, including 22 defence ministers and 14 military chiefs, are the highest this year since the forum was first held in 2006.
In particular, China is focusing its outreach to the Global South.
Zhao Yufei, an official with the event organiser, said the forum will call on developing countries to oppose bloc confrontation and a “Cold War mentality”, which are two frequent criticisms Beijing have of the West.
Two defence diplomats whose countries have sent ministers told Reuters the forum offers a rare opportunity to engage with senior Chinese defence officials and military leaders to build trust, which would be key in times of crisis.
Concerned about how open the forum can be, many in the West have either shunned it or are only sending small and low-level delegations, preferring instead to discuss international security issues at the Shangri-La Dialogue held annually in Singapore.
Some European countries, including France, plan to send a small delegation from their defence ministries, according to sources familiar with the matter.
NATO’s delegation will be led by Wendin Smith, its security policy director, a NATO official said.
(Reporting by Yew Lun Tian and Laurie Chen, additional reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels)