September 2023

Li’s march to the top

Heading the world’s largest army, China’s Defence Minister Gen. Li Shangfu is the global flag-bearer for Xi Jinping’s Global Security Initiative, which challenges America and its allies.   Duncan Bartlett analyses the general’s meetings – and messages

China’s Defence Minister Li Shangfu has risen to become the highest international representative of his country, second only to Xi Jinping. 

His position appears to have been elevated since the former foreign minister, Qin Gang, was purged after just seven months in the job.

General Li takes responsibility for cementing China’s military ties with other authoritarian states. From the perspective of the CCP, this is more crucial than talking to the leaders of Western countries, a job which is now left to Qin Gang’s replacement, state counsellor Wang Yi.

By studying closely where General Li goes, who he meets and what he says, it is possible to glean a great deal of valuable information about China’s new Global Security Initiative, which was launched by Xi Jinping earlier this year.

The document is full of terms, such as ‘win-win’ outcomes, which elicit a cynical sigh from many people in the West. However, there are still listeners in some countries – especially when the message is delivered by a tall, brusque soldier who leads a powerful army.

This summer, General Li held bilateral meetings with leaders of the defence departments and militaries of Iran, Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Russia and Belarus. India’s officials are also kept in the loop, even though their government is wary of China’s military ambitions.

The Russians provided General Li with a particularly warm welcome and invited him to give the keynote speech to the Moscow Conference on International Security in August. He used the opportunity to firmly state his opinion that Taiwan should be ‘reunited’ with mainland China – a view that is firmly rejected by Taiwan’s president and most of its population.

General Li said that Russia-China ties have ‘entered a new era’ and advocated further military cooperation. ‘Whether it is on Afghanistan, Syria, the Korean Peninsula, Ukraine or the Iranian nuclear issue, China will promote peace talks and help reach an international consensus,’ he insisted.

Defence Minister General Li Shangfu
Chinese State Councillor and Defence Minister General Li Shangfu delivers a speech at the 11th Moscow Conference on International Security Kubinka, Moscow on Aug. 15 this year (Photo: CFP

Such statements might have given some listeners the impression that Beijing seeks to be helpful in tense situations where America and its allies have struggled to resolve conflicts. In reality, China is far from a neutral peace-maker. It has been proactively building closer ties to repressive regimes in Iran, North Korea and Syria. And in Afghanistan, China is offering money to invest in infrastructure, in the hope that the Taliban will let it drill for oil.

The Kremlin drew up the guest list for the Moscow conference. It invited 92 countries but the Russian media reported that no representative from a Western nation attended.

In his speech, General Li took a shot at US foreign policy.

‘The international community is resisting and strongly opposed to the hegemonic approach of imposing one’s will on others and interfering in the internal affairs of other countries,’ he claimed. ‘These erroneous actions deprive other countries of their right to development and autonomy, and are the source of chaos and disaster in the world.’

In reality, China is far from a neutral peace-maker

The idea that the US takes a ‘hegemonic approach’, reinforced through alliances such as NATO, is one shared by Vladimir Putin.

President Joe Biden once concluded that Putin and Xi are bound together by a common view that autocracy is the way of the future, because democracy cannot function in a complex world. Another person who appears to take this dismissive view of democracy is Alexander Lukashenko, President of Belarus.

‘Unfortunately, the world is absolutely unstable today, through no fault of ours. Very powerful turbulent developments are happening in the world,’ President Lukashenko told General Li, when his Chinese guest paid him a visit in Minsk in August.

The president added that Belarus, like China, is an ‘absolute supporter of a multipolar world, territorial integrity and unity of the borders and territories’.

It is remarkable that a leader who has openly supported the Russian invasion of Ukraine chose to mention the ‘integrity’ of borders. Russian soldiers have marched through Belarus on their way to attack Ukrainian cities, and the Belarusian leader has even offered to let Russia build missile silos in his country, from which to fire nuclear weapons.

President Biden once concluded that Putin and Xi are bound together by a common view that autocracy is the way of the future

Soon before General Li went to Belarus, the EU adopted a new round of sanctions against President Lukashenko’s regime over continued human rights abuses and support for what the EU described as ‘Russia’s illegal and unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine’.

The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, said: ‘Lukashenko’s illegitimate regime continues systematic, widespread and gross human rights violations and brutal repression against all segments of the Belarusian society.’

Mr Borrell said the EU stands by the Belarusian people in their quest for peace and democracy. This appears to be a reference to the brief challenge to Lukashenko’s leadership in 2020, when protesters took to the streets complaining of poll-rigging and corruption. The demonstrations were soon crushed.

China is unconcerned about sanctions on Belarus or Russia. Indeed, General Li himself was sanctioned by the United States in 2018 over the acquisition of military hardware from Russia. His five-year term as Defence Minister started earlier this year and the sanctions prevent him from travelling to the US.

DISMISSIVE OF DEMOCRACY: Vladimir Putin (l) and Alexander Lukashenko

Nevertheless, General Li was asked to meet with US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin in Singapore in June this year, when both men were guests at the Shangri-La Dialogue. He turned down the invitation, to the frustration of the Americans.

The Chinese Global Security Initiative promotes an ‘enhanced focus on diplomacy and defence’, which it says can make the world safer through improved cooperation and dialogue.

Yet General Li’s words and actions indicate that Beijing’s principal foreign policy goal is to enhance defence ties only with America’s rivals. There are no real signs that Chinese diplomats are seeking to foster better relations with countries whose leaders’ world viewsdo not match that of Xi Jinping.

Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs and a Research Associate at the SOAS China Institute, where he hosts the weekly podcast, China In Context. He is an Associate Instructor on the Economist Executive programme, where he teaches the course China, Russia, the US and the Future of Geopolitics