The Munich Security Conference so far mainly provides an opportunity to talk about China, but not with China. Europeans need to improve the channels to engage Asia and China in security dialogues.

In 2010, China’s Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi shook up a mostly transatlantic audience when he took the stage at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) and accused the US of violating international law with a proposed arms sale to Taiwan. It was the first speech by a Chinese foreign minister in the forum’s history. Yang returned to Munich in 2015 as State Councillor, coordinating one of China’s small core groups in charge of steering foreign policy.

Beyond Yang’s personal involvement, China has kept a lower profile in Munich in most years. In 2011 it did not even participate at the conference. Beijing sent a deputy foreign ministers in 2012. In 2013, China was represented by the chairman of the supervisory board of the China Investment Corporation Jin Liqun, the current President of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB).

Currently, Beijing seems to put more attention to closed dialogues on security issues off the public stages at the MSC. Foreign Minister Wang Yi is attending a meeting of the Syria support group, which is held in Munich this Thursday in the run-up to the MSC. Fu Ying, the chairwoman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress, will head the official Chinese delegation at this year’s meeting, just like she did in 2014.

Fu is an eloquent politician and recently outlined China’s ambitions to play a bigger role in global affairs in an op-ed for the Financial Times. This is just what many Western politicians, among them the UK’s Prime Minister David Cameron or German Minister of Foreign Affairs Frank-Walter-Steinmeier, have called for when they asked China to take on greater responsibilities in solving an increasing number of global security crises.

Beijing focuses on forums closer to home

Yet in terms of protocol, Fu ranks below her fellow delegation leaders from other participating countries. China is keeping a lower profile on the public stages of the MSC. Seen from Beijing, Munich has less relevance than the forums closer to home. Another reason may be that China worries about being unfairly attacked in such Western-dominated settings, and feels that its representatives feel are not allotted enough speaking time to present their own ideas.

The Chinese delegation in Munich is smaller than the groups that Beijing sends to the Shangri-La Dialogue, which the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies has convened in Singapore since 2002. This regional security forum took the Munich conference as a model, but shifted the focus to Asia, which had no regional security framework similar to Europe’s.

But even in Shangri-La, China is not represented by its highest-ranking politicians. Beijing is suspicious of this forum, which it views as heavily influenced by the US. China’s own Xiangshan Forum, organised by China’s Association for Military Science and the China Institute for International Strategic Studies since 2009. It can be seen as a Chinese response to the Shangri-La Dialogue, or even an attempt to undermine it. 

For military and defense officials from Europe, Asia and the US, it is emerging to become the most important forum to engage China on international security issues.

At this point, Western politicians interested in a dialogue with China are well advised to travel to Asia. Various US defense secretaries and members of Congress like Senator John McCain have done this for years, but their European counterparts are only slowly adjusting to the new reality. When Germany’s defense minister Ursula von der Leyen ventured into the Shangri-La meeting last year she was criticised by German media for not having much to say – other than offering up Europe’s regional integration and the post-war reconciliation between Germany and France as an example for Asia.

This year’s Munich conference will be dominated yet again by debates among transatlantic partners and their NATO allies, and it will understandably focus on urgent topics like the relations to Russia, the war in Syria and the refugee crisis in Europe. And just like in previous years, there will also be a talk about China – be it as an opportunity, a challenge, or a threat. But if European policymakers want to make a serious effort to engage China in a real conversation, the appropriate channels for that have yet to be created.