When China gave visiting US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel an unprecedented tour on board its sole aircraft carrier earlier this week, it offered a new twist in the two superpowers' relations.
You could say China was trying to flex her muscles to Washington. You can also say China was telling the world she had nothing to hide and was perhaps underscoring President Xi Jinping’s recent statement in Europe that anyone trying to paint Beijing as a military threat to her neighbours was only spreading false speculation.
Of course, China is also keen to allay concerns over its rising defence budget, which has registered double-digit growth in recent years. Xi was at pains to point out that the military budget’s size was in no way excessive considering the scope of China’s security requirements.
But Washington has at the same time issued warnings against China adopting Russia’s “Crimea model”.
Daniel Russel, US assistant secretary of state for Asia and Pacific, who was in Thailand on Tuesday and yesterday, warned in his comments to a US Senate committee earlier that China’s neighbours, especially in Southeast Asia, had heightened concerns about the “possibility of China increasingly threatening force or other forms of coercion to advance their territorial interests” following Russia’s actions in Crimea.
He was quoted as saying: “The tolerance in the region for steps by China that appear to presage a more muscular approach has gone down, as their alarm over Russian action and annexation of Crimea has increased.”
That reflected US Secretary of Defence Hagel’s earlier criticism of Beijing’s actions in territorial disputes. One day after the Chinese military leaders took him on the tour of China’s aircraft carrier, Chinese military leaders openly hit back at Hagel.
General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Defence Minister Chang Wanquan retaliated with a vengeance.
Singapore’s Straits Times reported on the front page yesterday that Gen Fan, speaking in full view of the press, told Hagel that he took personal offence at his remarks in Japan last weekend and at a meeting of Asean defence ministers in Hawaii last week.
He said: “I can tell you frankly, your remarks made at the Asean defence ministers meeting and to the Japanese politicians were tough and with a clear attitude. The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks.”
What had the US defence secretary said that irked the Chinese political and military leaders? In Japan, Hagel promised Japanese politicians he would tell China to exercise “great responsibilities” prudently. He also said he would tell China to improve transparency in the People’s Liberation Army, the world’s largest military force, with 2.3 million troops.
In Hawaii, Hagel had said he would prod Chinese leaders towards “responsible behaviour” in their disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
Did Hagel tone down his words? Not really. He emphasised Washington’s displeasure over China’s recent moves, including the launch of an Air Defence Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
He told Gen Chang in their meeting that the US had been very clear on the issue. “First, every nation has a right to establish an air defence zone but not a right to do it unilaterally with no collaboration, no consultation. That adds to tension, misunderstandings and could eventually add to, and eventually get to, dangerous conflict.”
The Chinese general made it clear that Washington’s strong language would be matched by equally firm statements from Beijing.
Gen Chang insisted that China would not compromise over her rights to protect China’s territorial sovereignty.
He was quoted as saying: “The China-US relationship is neither comparable to US-Russia ties in the Cold War, nor a relationship between container and the contained. China’s development can’t be contained by any one.”
In a curious way perhaps, the strong language being employed by both Washington and Beijing might usher in a new era of relationship in a positive way. At least now, the US and China can talk frankly and put all their cards on the table instead of issuing threats and using undercover manipulation to undermine each other. Both realise that they need each other in this increasingly interdependent world. As the Chinese general suggested, this isn’t really a repeat of the Cold War. It’s what Chinese President Xi has described as “a new kind of major powers’ relationship”.
What that precisely means in practical terms remains unclear, but inviting your “frenemy” (friend+enemy) to your aircraft carrier after he had offended you, and then slamming him after the unprecedented friendly gesture, might be the first phase of this “new kind of relationship”.
This might just be the kind of “innovative” international diplomacy that this shaky world badly needs.