The Cable

Chinese Defense Minister’s charm offensive falls flat

SINGAPORE – Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie came to Singapore to convince the international community that China wanted to play a constructive role in Southeast Asian security cooperation based on self restraint and peaceful coexistence. But his platitudes, happy talk, and denials of China’s aggressive military actions failed to win over an audience frustrated ...

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SINGAPORE – Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie came to Singapore to convince the international community that China wanted to play a constructive role in Southeast Asian security cooperation based on self restraint and peaceful coexistence. But his platitudes, happy talk, and denials of China’s aggressive military actions failed to win over an audience frustrated with the Chinese military’s ongoing agressive actions in the region, according to delegates, experts, and government officials.

Liang, the first ever Chinese Defense Minister to lead China’s delegation to the 10th annual IISS Shangri-La Security Dialogue, gave a 45 minute speech on Sunday outlining the People’s Liberation Army’s policies on a range of regional issues, including control of the South China Sea, China’s military modernation, and regional security cooperation. Liang even took questions from the press, including one set from your humble Cable guy, and was gracious and upbeat in his remarks about China’s relationship with its neighbors.

"China hopes to see peace and stability in its neighborhood more than anyone else. We oppose any action that might lead to regional turbulence or compromise mutual trust between neighbors. China follows the policy of ‘forging friendship and partnership’ with its neighbors," he said. "We are ready to make joint effort with other Asian countries in creating a regional environment of peace, stability, equality, collaboration, trust and mutual benefit by boosting political confidence, seeking common development and facilitating people-to-people exchange."

But Liang repeatedly refused to acknowledge several recent examples of Chinese military aggression in Southeast Asia, leaving the audience of senior military officials and experts from 35 countries disappointed and feeling that Liang’s rhetoric did not match the facts on the ground. The Vietnamese and Filipino defense ministers who spoke after him issued sharp rebukes of the Chinese military’s behavior and several members of the U.S. delegation left the session disappointed.

Liang was playing along with the script established by Defense Secretary Robert Gates only a day before. The two leaders of the Pacific’s two strongest militaries went to great lengths to portray a warming of U.S.-China ties and they avoided at all costs any discussion of contentious bilateral issues.

"Liang’s message was to underscore China’s determination to stick to the path of peaceful development and willingness to promote security in the region. He did not criticize the United States directly and emphasized the recent positive developments between the U.S. and Chinese militaries," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "There was no mention of Taiwan at all, whereas last year there was quite a lot of discussion about Taiwan."

China is trying to repair and soften its image in Southeast Asia following the downturn in relations due to China’s aggressive stance with regard to key regional issues, such as its 2010 claim that the highly disputed South China Sea was a "core interest," which angered several regional powers who also have claims there.

"It’s been a charm offensive. Liang’s objective was to avoid offending or frightening anyone, and try to scrub away the stain of the last two years of ‘assertiveness.’ They realize it wasn’t working for them," one U.S. delegate at the conference told The Cable

But China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea and near the disputed Spratly Islands continue to this day, undermining the credibility of Liang’s contention that China was interested in purely negotiated solutions.

"I doubt his speech reassured anyone. It certainly didn’t put to rest the questions and concerns among its neighbors raised by China’s recent behavior," the U.S. delegate said.

In fact, in the session immediately following Liang’s remarks, the defense ministers of Vietnam and the Philippines openly criticized China and called for more U.S. security presence in Southeast Asia.

"As always, we expect China to honor the policies they announce to the world and we are hopeful these statements will be translated into realities," said Vietnamese Defense Minister Lt. Gen. Phung Quang Thanh, who complained that last month three Chinese ships cut the cables of a Vietnamese survey ship to prevent Vietnam from exploring disputed areas of the South China Sea.

Philippine’s Defense Secretary Voltaire Tuvera Gazmin was even harsher. China stands accused of several intimidating actions against Filipino fishing boats and on islands claimed by the Philippines in the Spratlys.

"These actions unnecessarily create insecurity, not only for the government, but more disturbingly toward the citizens who depend on the maritime environment for their livelihood," Gazmin said, while referencing several specific incidents of Chinese military intimidation in Filipino waters.

In the question and answer period, Liang dodged and weaved, often avoiding direct questions. For example, when asked about the Chinese plan to take over operations of a key port in Pakistan, Liang said he had no idea about it, despite that the Pakistani Defense Minister had already announced it publicly.

"Much of the rhetoric in General Liang’s speech hit the expected notes of reassurance to the region," another U.S. delegate said. "But, as several of the questions put before General Liang pointed to, there are also a raft of unanswered questions and anxieties in the region, given the gap between PRC rhetoric and its activities and actions, including when it comes to China’s so-called ‘core interests,’ the South China Sea, and its military modernization."

 Twitter: @joshrogin

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