China’s Military Tries to Reassure Wary Neighbors

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Years of sharp increases in military spending coupled with territorial disputes with some of its neighbors have contributed to growing suspicions over Chinese intentions. So China’s military brass is on a campaign to reassure governments in the Asia-Pacific region that the modernization of the People’s Liberation Army poses no threat. This weekend Gen. Liang Guanglie became the first Chinese defense minister to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, where he told representatives of regional militaries that “China unswervingly adheres to a defense policy defensive in nature. To judge whether a country is a threat to world peace, the key is not to look at how strong its economy or military is, but the policy it pursues.”

Late last month Liang visited the Philippines, where he also emphasized friendly relations. But despite such public reassurances, the cultivation of trust has proved illusive. Shortly after Liang left Manila the Philippines formally complained about the presence of Chinese naval vessels in the waters around the Spratlys, a group of disputed islands in the South China Sea. The Philippines also sent military aircraft to the Spratlys in March, following an encounter between Chinese vessels and a Philippine ship. During the Shangri-La security summit, Philippines Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin referred to maritime “challenges” from other states that “make other states like the Philippines worry and concerned.”

He was not the only Southeast Asian representative to express concern. Vietnam defense minister General Phung Quang Thanh also complained about Chinese patrol boats that cut the cables of a Vietnamese oil and gas surveying ship in the South China Sea on May 26. His complaints were backed by rare public protests over the weekend in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

One year ago U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told a regional forum in Vietnam that the U.S. considered navigation and respect for international law in the South China Sea a “national interest,” and would be willing to aid talks over territorial disputes there. That prompted an angry response from China, which accused the U.S. of meddling in an issue that should be handled within the region.

Since then, China has sought to present a friendlier face, both to its Asian neighbors and the U.S. Last month Gen. Chen Bingde, head of the Chinese military’s general staff department, delivered a similar message of peaceful cooperation in Washington, where he said that despite the PLA’s advancements, it did not intend to challenge the U.S. military. En route to Singapore, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates praised the progress in the Sino-U.S. military relationship. High-level contacts only resumed late last year after China broke off military ties in January 2010 to protest a $6.4 billion U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, the self-governed island that China considers part of its territory. But he tempered those comments when asked about how the relationship might fare in the future. “I don’t know the answer to that,” Gates said, “because I think we don’t know how the next months or a year or two will evolve.”