On Monday, China welcomed visiting United States Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel with a tour of its sole aircraft carrier Liaoning, but the feel-good vibes dissipated a day later.
Dispensing with diplomatic protocol, top Chinese military officials crossed swords publicly with Hagel over Beijing’s actions in regional territorial disputes on China’s maritime fronts, as well as Washington’s response.
In separate meetings, Central Military Commission (CMC) vice-chair Fan Changlong and Defence Minister Chang Wanquan told Hagel in full view of the press that China wasn’t happy with the US for siding with its neighbours in the disputes and also for selling arms to Taiwan.
Responding with candour too, Hagel reportedly said that the US would protect Japan, its security treaty ally, in the event of a conflict with China, as he accused Beijing of provocation with its launch of an air defence identification zone (ADIZ) last November in the East China Sea.
It was a rare open display of dissatisfaction compared to the usual style of keeping angry exchanges over sensitive topics behind closed doors, say analysts, as they cite several possible reasons.
Beijing-based military commentator Wu Ge cited rising anxiety on both sides that their core interests are coming under threat from each other.
“It is not surprising the talks have turned into public spats as these are issues that both sides cannot achieve common ground on,” he said.
For China, core interests include its territorial sovereignty at stake in the maritime disputes; and Taiwan, after the US House of Representatives this week approved US arms sale to Taipei and reaffirmed the Taiwan Relations Act that obligates the US to protect Taiwan in an attack.
For the US, its freedom of navigation in the region is under rising threat from China, with the ADIZ in the East China Sea and a fishing ban against foreign vessels in the South China Sea.
Also, observers say China wants to state publicly its bottom line over the regional disputes ahead of US President Barack Obama’s Asian tour later this month, fearing that recent remarks by senior American officials signal more support to come from the US for its allies.
Obama will visit South Korea, Malaysia, Japan and the Philippines. The latter two are US allies fiercely opposed to China’s territorial claims. “Obama needs to pay serious consideration to this issue when he comes to Asia. ... China has already put this message across during the meetings with Hagel,” said former Chinese diplomat Ruan Zongze. “The US is moving in a direction we don’t want to see, taking sides with Japan and the Philippines, and China is extremely unhappy about this.”
Others say the Chinese reaction could also reflect pent-up anger towards Hagel for his opposition when China launched its ADIZ. Hagel was also rumoured to have been instrumental in sending two B-52 bombers to fly through the zone without identifying themselves, defying China.
Said Miami University analyst June Teufel Dreyer: “The B-52s could be a reason, but the Chinese government surely knows Hagel did not personally make the decision to send the planes to challenge the ADIZ: That decision could only have been by commander-in-chief Obama.”
Analysts say the Chinese military was also speaking with the domestic audience in mind by taking a hard line on territorial disputes. But some say it is not a bad thing that both sides are speaking frankly over sensitive issues.
“I view the frank exchange of differences as positive, as opposed to the bland, meaningless statements about the need for the two sides to cooperate to ensure regional and global peace and stability,” said Professor Dreyer.
Sino-US expert Shen Dingli said the Chinese military is also simply showing the transparency that the US, and Hagel, had been demanding from China.
“I see it as an improvement on the part of the Chinese military, displaying a mature and proper handling of disputes with the US,” said Professor Shen of the Fudan University in Shanghai.
He said the show of openness explains why China let Hagel tour the Liaoning aircraft carrier, making him the first senior Western official to do so.
But analysts say the sabre-rattling would not have long-term impact on the commitment struck by Chinese President Xi Jinping and Obama for a “new model of major-country relationship” and new type of military relations that avoids conflict and seeks mutual respect, among others.
They cited how Hagel’s visit has also produced real progress, such as an agreement between both militaries to hold an Asia-Pacific security dialogue, and to set up an early-notification mechanism and a code of conduct for air and sea safety on high sea.
“In my view, the media has focused more on the competitive dimensions of Hagel’s visit than the cooperative ones,” said Taylor Fravel, a security analyst at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.