Although China voted with the United States and other countries to impose another round of sanctions against Iran in the United Nations Security Council, there is still little political trust between the two countries, especially between their militaries.
This was evident when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue, during which he appealed to China to restore military cooperation so as to reduce misunderstanding. The defense secretary said that American arms sales were a reality that China could not change. However, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the general staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, responded that “we do not regard U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as something normal” and “it is not the Chinese side that has set obstacles to military-to- military ties.”
The American military’s unhappiness with its Chinese counterpart was also made plain by Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who said he was “dismayed” by China’s lack of support for efforts to pressure North Korea over the sinking in March of the Cheonan, a South Korean warship. South Korea has taken the issue to the Security Council, where it has the support of the U.S. But China is not joining in the effort, calling instead for restraint.
The U.S. has announced its intention to join South Korea in holding naval exercises in the general vicinity where the South Korean vessel was sunk and that the nuclear aircraft carrier USS George Washington would take part in the drill. This has triggered an angry reaction within China.
While officially the Chinese government, when asked for comment, went no further than to call for calmness and restraint on the Korean Peninsula, an article published in the People’s Daily’s online edition made China’s unhappiness clear.
“More and more Chinese citizens are incensed that the United States and South Korea will hold military drills in the Yellow Sea at the end of the month,” said the article, which was headlined “U.S. must restrain provocative behavior.”
It said an online survey by the Global Times newspaper “shows 96 percent of Chinese netizens believe it poses a threat to China [that] the U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington . . . may take part in the joint drills.”
The article did not mention the sinking of the Cheonan, but it did acknowledge that the U.S. had conducted military exercises in the Yellow Sea in the past. However, reflecting a new, assertive attitude on the part of many Chinese, including government officials, the article said, “The United States may believe that since it conducted military drills in the Yellow Sea in the past, it can do that now and in the future. But the United States should understand, with China’s increasing national strength, Chinese nationals will get more sensitive to the provocative actions the U.S. Navy takes in a place so close to their home.”
China had previously objected to the presence of American intelligence-gathering vessels in the waters of its exclusive economic zone. This article, however, does not cite any legal backing for its position. Now, China is objecting to an American military presence in an area that is not claimed as China’s territorial waters or even its exclusive economic zone. It is a response based purely on emotion.
While saying that “China does not object to the U.S. Navy’s presence in the western Pacific,” it asserts that “this does not mean the United States can ignore China’s self-esteem and drive their aircraft carrier straight to the front of China’s doorstep to flex their muscles.”
As China gains strength economically, diplomatically and militarily, Beijing is seeking to assure other countries that they have nothing to fear because China will not be a hegemon. Last week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman again repeated this message while responding to concerns voiced by Adm. Mullen.
“China’s development will not threaten any country or person,” the spokesman said. “We don’t threaten or invade others. We oppose hegemony. Even if China becomes developed in the future, we will still follow the road of peaceful development and never seek hegemony. This is a solemn pledge made by the Chinese government.”
In a way, it is good that the Chinese government is willing to go on record and say that it will never seek to dominate the region or the world. The challenge for everyone, including the Chinese, is to see to it that China does not deviate from this position, even after it becomes a superpower.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator.