The first ever visit to Sri Lanka by a Chinese Defence Minister appeared to be low profile affair, considering the importance attached to Sino-Lanka relations nowadays. Little was revealed in advance about General Liang Guanglie’s programme during his five-day visit starting Aug. 29, and there was no customary media briefing at the end of it. [...]

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Chinese Defence Minister seeks to mend fences on Asian tour

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The first ever visit to Sri Lanka by a Chinese Defence Minister appeared to be low profile affair, considering the importance attached to Sino-Lanka relations nowadays. Little was revealed in advance about General Liang Guanglie’s programme during his five-day visit starting Aug. 29, and there was no customary media briefing at the end of it. General Liang’s speech at the Defence Services Command and Staff College (DSCSC) in Sapugaskanda, spelling out China’s defence policy, was made to an exclusively military gathering. The content of the speech, however, indicated that its message was intended for a wider audience – an international one, in fact.

General Liang’s visit was the first leg of an Asian tour that would also take him to India and Laos. A once-in-a-decade leadership change in Beijing is due to take place later this year, and the trip is seen by analysts as an attempt to smooth out tensions in foreign relations ahead of that transition.

Liang’s remarks reflected China’s warm regard for Sri Lanka in its external relations. China values close ties with the island at a time when the strategic importance of the Indian Ocean region has increased, and there is pressure to secure its busy shipping routes. It has had no territorial disputes with Sri Lanka on land or at sea. Sri Lanka, for its part, is eternally grateful to China for making available weaponry that helped defeat the LTTE militarily. But China’s relationships with its neighbours and its main rival India, are fraught with tensions that have a bearing on regional stability.

These are compounded by its concerns over the US ‘pivot to Asia’ – the superpower’s shift of focus to the Asia Pacific region, as it winds down in Afghanistan.

Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie at Defence Services Command and Staff College

Referring to the growth of China’s international influence since its opening up, Liang said “Some people in the international community suspect that China would take the road of expansion by force, and have been actively spreading the “China Threat Theory.” This view, he said, was owing to a ‘Cold War mentality’ or ‘lack of understanding’. His speech at the DSCSC sought to dismiss these fears and show that China’s policy was one of ‘peaceful development’.

Liang said that the Chinese army’s efforts at cooperation with its South Asian counterparts “are intended for maintaining regional security and stability and not targeted at any third party.” Here Liang was probably hinting at India’s worries over China’s port and infrastructure development projects in a number of South Asian cities (including Hambantota). The ‘string of pearls’ theory cited by some analysts interprets these moves as a policy of encirclement.

Rubbishing the idea that China’s military expenditure was growing at unacceptable rates, he said China’s defence spending in 2010 and 2011 took 1.4% and 1.28% of its GDP (Gross Domestic Product) respectively which, he argued, was ‘at a very low level’ compared to developed countries and some developing countries.

In India, Liang held talks with his counterpart A.K. Antony and reportedly ‘debated’ the main sources of friction between the two sides. It had been decided to resume joint military exercises, Indian reporters were told. “We have reached a consensus on high-level visits and exchange of personnel, maritime security….. and cooperation between the two navies,” Liang was quoted as saying. The relationship between the two nuclear-armed states is often described as ‘prickly,’ and the Chinese Defence Minister’s visit is considered a rare event.

While details are few, it appears that the two sides did discuss the fractious issue of the disputed Himalayan border in Arunchal Pradesh, over which they fought a war in 1962. In an interview with the Hindu newspaper Liang also categorically rejected the reports that China had deployed troops on the Pakistan controlled side of Jammu and Kashmir.

These one-on-one talks may help to separate the imaginary fears from the real, and to that extent contribute towards stability in the region. But issues between the two Asian giants extend beyond the Indian subcontinent. India has close ties with Vietnam, and is carrying out exploration in an oil block in the South China Sea, to China’s annoyance. Competing territorial claims over the South China Sea have been a source of increasing friction between China and its neighbours in recent times. China lays claim to most of it, but others beg to differ.

Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are among those contesting China’s claims over groups of islands in these waters. Shipping lanes, fishing and oil resources all combine to make the area a flashpoint in the region. The dispute has now reached critical proportions. As a result of disagreements between China and others over the South China Sea, the ASEAN summit held earlier this year was, for the first time, unable to issue a joint statement.

In his speech at Sapugaskanda DSCSC Liang said China’s defence policy was ‘defensive in nature.’ Its military strategy was described as one of self defence, not taking the initiative to offend others, standing for a non-military means of resolving disputes and following a policy of ‘attack only after being attacked.’

The example Liang used to illustrate the point was the recent stand-off with the Philippines over Huangyan island — known in the Philippines as Pantag (Scarborough) Shoal — in the South China Sea. “.it is obvious that China’s military strength is stronger than that of the Philippines, but we didn’t use force or threat to use force, on the contrary, we have been committed to seeking a solution of the dispute through diplomatic means,” he said.

This incident was reported by the Chinese as one where a Philippine war ship harassed 12 Chinese fishing vessels that had sailed near Huangyan Island to shelter from bad weather. But according to Philippine media, “Philippine forces spotted Chinese fishermen taking marine species from the area but were blocked by Chinese ships when trying to make arrests.” It would appear there is disagreement as to who is encroaching on whom, in this case.

China rejects the application of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea in this matter on the basis that the Law does not “service evidence to judge” to whom the islands belong.

Cracks in China’s ‘peaceful development’ theory appear in disputes where there is disagreement as to where its territorial boundaries with other states lie – such as in the case of the South China Sea. In such situations China, with its superior military strength, could intimidate smaller states into compliance with its wishes, even though it may desist from acts of aggression. It is not clear how international law would come into play in such situations.




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