BEIJING — As expectations grow that the U.S. Navy will directly challenge Beijing's South China Sea claims, China is engaging in some serious image-building for its own military by hosting two international security forums this week.
The events kick off Friday with an informal meeting of defense ministers from the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations known as ASEAN — four of which exercise claims to seas and islands in the South China Sea that clash with Beijing's own. It is the first time China has hosted such a meeting.
That will be followed by the Xiangshan Forum, at which analysts, military leaders and others from around the globe will grapple with Asian-Pacific security, maritime issues and anti-terrorism.
"China wants to use these sorts of forums to promote China's views, explain China's policies and improve China's security image," said regional security expert Li Mingjiang of Singapore's Nanyang Technological University.
Since 2013, China has accelerated the construction of new islands atop reefs and atolls in the South China Sea and is adding buildings and airstrips in apparent attempts to boost its sovereignty claims to the territory.
Unnamed Pentagon officials said last week that the U.S. Navy may soon receive approval to sail a ship inside the 12-nautical mile (21-kilometer) territorial limit surrounding China's man-made islands, reported the Navy Times, which is closely affiliated with the U.S. Navy. ASEAN member Philippines expressed support this week for such a move.
Sailing within the 12-mile (21-kilometer) boundary would mark the first time the U.S. has directly challenged China's territorial claims since 2012 and reinforce Washington's assertion that the land reclamation does not add sovereign territory.
The U.S. and its allies, including the Philippines, insist that the newly made islands threaten stability in an increasingly militarized region.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Wednesday the artificial islands were created for the public good and have "nothing to do" with militarization.
China has also sparred with Vietnam, another ASEAN member, over ownership of the Paracel island group, leading to a weeks-long confrontation last year when Beijing moved a massive oil drilling platform into contested waters.
On Thursday, Vietnam accused China of sinking one of its fishing boats near the disputed islands. The incident was apparently motivated by a desire to steal the ship's catch of fish and put it out of commission. There was no immediate evidence that any Chinese government ships were involved, although Beijing's aggressive actions are believed to embolden Chinese fishermen in the area.
China's Defense Ministry has said that the ASEAN gathering in Beijing is to "promote strategic trust and pragmatic cooperation." Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanquan will hold talks with his counterparts and host them on visits to military units, the spokesman said.
Li, the regional security expert, said China realizes its defense relations with its neighbors are weak and wants to refurbish its image. Li said talks would likely steer clear of contentious issues and focus on non-traditional security cooperation, military exchanges and regional security in general.
"Because the meeting is in Beijing, it would be hard for any country to confront China over the South China Sea," Li said. "There's also a lack of solidarity among ASEAN countries over the issue."
China vastly expanded the scope of the Xiangshan Forum last year, making it an annual rather than biennial event and boosting participation to more than 300 defense officials and academics from 47 countries.
With the world's second-largest defense budget, China's military — especially its navy — is gathering formidable capabilities.
It will soon deploy its first aircraft carrier and is rapidly adding advanced destroyers, missile cruisers and nuclear submarines. A massive military parade in Beijing last month showcased new missiles permitting China to hit targets — including U.S. Navy ships and bases — throughout the region.
Along with claiming almost all of the South China Sea's island groups and crucial sea lanes, China is dueling with Japan over ownership of an uninhabited chain of islands north of Taiwan, and in late 2013 declared an air defense zone that would theoretically give it control of aviation over much of the East China Sea. Many analysts believe China is now considering declaring a similar zone over the South China Sea.
To defuse such concerns, China needs to turn gatherings such as the Xiangshan Forum into venues for "a genuine two-way conversation," rather than simply attempt to impose its own views, wrote U.S. Defense Department analyst Kim Fassler in a recent paper for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Fassler wrote that this includes "urging Beijing to explore how its actions contribute to narratives of China as an aggressor instead of a regional leader."