When China gave visiting US Defense 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 neighbors was only spreading false speculation.
Of course, China is also keen to allay concerns over its rising defense 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 Wednesday, warned in his comments to a US Senate committee earlier that China’s neighbors, 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 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.
China’s General Fan Changlong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, and De–fense Minister Chang Wanquan retaliated with a vengeance.
Singapore’s Straits Times reported on the front page on Wednesday that Fan, speaking in full view of the press, told Hagel that he took personal offense at his remarks in Japan last weekend and at a meeting of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) defense ministers in Hawaii last week.
He said: “I can tell you frankly, your remarks made at the Asean defense 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 defense 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 toward “responsible behavior” in their disputes with Japan over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.
Did Hagel tone down his words? Not really. He emphasized Washington’s displeasure over China’s recent moves, including the launch of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea.
He told China’s Chang in their meeting that the US had been very clear on the issue. “First, every nation has a right to establish an air defense zone but not a right to do it unilaterally with no collaboration, no consultation. That adds to tension, mis–understandings and could even–tually 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.
Chang insisted that China would not compromise over her rights to protect China’s terri–torial 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 em–ployed 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 mani–pulation to undermine each other. Both realize 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 dip–lomacy that this shaky world badly needs.