Minnie Chan, South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
28 May 2015
For the first time, Beijing is sending an admiral to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore and appears to be well-prepared to assert the legitimacy of its extensive land reclamation in the South China Sea, analysts said.
Admiral Sun Jianguo, deputy chief of the People's Liberation Army's General Staff, will lead the 29-member Chinese team of officials and observers at the regional security summit on Friday and Sunday, organisers said. China sent 25 delegates last year.
William Choong, the Shangri-La Dialogue's senior fellow of Asia-Pacific security, said the South China Sea issue was likely to be "the most explosive topic" among the three themes of terrorism, trade and territorial to be discussed this year.
Last year, sparks flew between United States and China over Beijing's claims over the South China Sea.
"We saw what happened last year when then U.S. defence secretary Chuck Hagel said that China's assertiveness in the South China Sea and its unilateral actions were destabilising to the region," said Choong.
He added that the U.S. Defence Secretary Ashton Carter is expected to make a similar claim.
The tension has mounted in recent weeks after U.S. broadcaster CNN reported warnings from the Chinese navy against a U.S. reconnaissance flight over the area and U.S. accusations that China tried to electronically jam one of its drones.
"The Chinese military is very well-prepared [for the meeting]. Sun is graduate from the PLA navy's submarine school," Beijing-based naval expert Li Jie said.
"Sun is well-versed in international maritime law and China's long-term maritime strategy, which will help him to explain China's island expansion project in the South China Sea and Chinese navy's future missions on the high seas to his foreign counterparts."
Sun, 63, a native of Hebei province, was captain the PLA submarine Long March III in 1985 when it set a world record of 90 days underwater for a nuclear submarine.
China has sent military delegates to the summit since 2007, but it only sent a defence minister in 2011. Last year, it sent another deputy chief of the general staff, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong, from the Second Artillery Corps, the army's strategic missile force.
Choong revealed that even last year, China's military delegation "burned the midnight oil and called room service" to hone carefully-crafted responses to U.S. and Japanese presentations the day before at the summit.
"Wang comments that Sunday morning were very clear and particular. He had ready answers to justify China's actions in the South China Sea," Choong said.
As the Sino-U.S. relationship remains otherwise strong, Choong said U.S. military delegates to the meeting always had a realistic approach of "valuing cooperation with their Chinese counterparts" and he expected both sides would "debate carefully" this time, as usual.
Defence ministers from nearly 30 countries will attend this year's summit, which was set up in 2002, said the organiser, the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies.