China’s army sent the most senior-ever delegation to a regional security forum, showing that its leaders value the dialogue and trying to decrease concern over its rising military strength.
China's delegation to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is being led by Lt. Gen. Zhang Qisheng, the People's Liberation Army's deputy chief of the general staff, who holds the equivalent of vice-ministerial rank.
In previous years, China was represented by a much lower ranking officer at the departmental director-general level.
"China has seen it has more to gain from participating than they having from staying out," said Tim Huxley, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security for the London-based International Institute for Security Studies, the organizer of the forum, now in its sixth-year.
China's participation comes amid questions over the purpose of its double-digit annual hikes in defense spending, development of sophisticated weapons, and actions such as the downing of one of its own satellites with a missile launched from western China.
The launch, the first test of an anti-satellite weapon in two decades, showed off the rising technological capabilities of Chinese weaponry, but was heavily criticized by the U.S. for the lack of warning and for leaving a large debris field in space.
The highly secretive PLA - the world's largest military with 2.3 million members - has long-shied away from multilateral forums that encourage dialogue and transparency, preferring set-piece bilateral visits that emphasize symbolism over substance. However, recent years have seen it join a growing variety of exchanges, including naval communication drills with the United States.
Huxley said China's growing participation in the forum shows it recognizes the importance of explaining itself.
"They want to convince other nations that they are a benign rising power, not a hostile rising power," he said.
The forum, which gets under way in earnest on Saturday, is scheduled to be addressed by U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and defense chiefs and ministers from countries including Australia, Britain, France, Germany, India, Japan, and South Korea. In all, China is sending four uniformed officers, along with leading diplomats and government-supported scholars.