Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel met Chinese President Xi Jinping today to push for better military ties, a day after his being told by his counterpart in Beijing that China won’t be contained by the U.S.
China will make “no compromise, no concessions” in disputes over territory and resources with Japan and the Philippines, and is ready to fight and win any battle, General Chang Wanquan, Hagel’s counterpart, said yesterday at a briefing alongside the American visitor. Hagel emphasized the U.S. commitment to its Asian allies and said China inflamed tensions by setting up an air defense zone over islands in the East China Sea also claimed by Japan.
Today’s meeting with President Xi focused less on contentious issues, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation. Hagel and Xi discussed North Korea’s continuing nuclear weapons and missile programs, the officials said, with Hagel reiterating to the Chinese leader that North Korea’s actions threaten the U.S. homeland as well as China.
In the meeting in the Great Hall of the People, the Chinese leader told Hagel that his visit to China “this time will definitely push forward the development of our new model of military-to-military relationship.” The U.S. is seeking to bolster cooperation with China while defusing territorial tensions between the world’s second-largest economy and allies in the region that the U.S. is treaty-bound to defend in case of a conflict.
China’s defense ministry today objected to legislation passed by the U.S. House of Representatives authorizing the sale of four frigates to Taiwan, an independently governed island that China claims as its own. If the ships’ sale went through it would cause “severe” damage to U.S.-China military ties, and is “extremely destructive,” Geng Yansheng, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense, said in a statement on the ministry’s website.
The sharper tone underscored the People’s Liberation Army view of territorial disputes expressed by Defense Minister Chang yesterday at the joint briefing, despite efforts by both ministers to play up agreements on better dialogue and joint operations reached during Hagel’s first visit as defense secretary.
China will make “no compromise, no concessions” in disputes with Japan and the Philippines, Chang said yesterday.
“We are prepared at any time to cope with all kinds of threats and challenges,” Chang said. “The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.”
His comments suggests dissatisfaction in the People’s Liberation Army, as well as pressure on leaders to “start using China’s strength to realize Chinese preferences,” said Denny Roy, a senior fellow at the Honolulu-based East-West Center whose work focuses on Chinese security issues.
“Chang did not hold back in stating the PLA’s grievances,” Roy said. “That was not so much surprising as disappointing.”
Chang’s frankness also showed some generals may feel emboldened to speak their minds in a high-profile setting, even against the wishes of civilian leaders, Roy said. “Neither of these circumstances is good news for the rest of the region.”
Xi took over as head of the Central Military Commission when he became Communist Party secretary in November 2012. He’s made strengthening the military, including extending its maritime power, a priority for a revitalized China. The central government has said it will boost defense spending 12.2 percent this year.
Hagel toured China’s first and only aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, on April 7 and yesterday visited the country’s National Defense University. His trip comes weeks before President Barack Obama travels to Asia to reinforce the U.S.’s commitment to what it calls its rebalance to the region.
Hagel won some concessions from the PLA with his ship visit, and pledges to continue cooperation between military services, according to a U.S. defense official speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss bilateral issues.
Hagel leaves Beijing tomorrow for Mongolia, where he is scheduled to meet the country’s defense minister and prime minister.
The U.S. seeks military ties with China “to deepen practical cooperation in areas of common interest, and to manage competition and differences through openness and communication,” Hagel said at the joint briefing yesterday. This year China will for the first time join the U.S. in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, the Pacific Ocean military simulation held every other year.
The two countries agreed to step up joint military exercises, improve communication about drills to avoid accidents and boost contacts between their armies.
While Chang also spoke of cooperation, he said the U.S. rebalancing won’t damp China’s ambitions.
“With the latest developments in China, it can never be contained,” he said yesterday. The U.S. is “a country of worldwide influence, and the Pacific Ocean is huge enough to hold both China and the U.S. for common development and also huge enough to hold the other Asia-Pacific countries.”
Tensions in Asia have been on the rise as China asserts its military muscle and presses claims to territory and resources disputed with the Philippines and Japan. Chang made it clear that stepped-up cooperation wouldn’t mean that China would soften its position in disputes over islands and fishing grounds in the East and South China seas.
“I’d like to reiterate that the territorial sovereignty issue is China’s core interest,” Chang said, referring to shoals and reefs in the South China Sea claimed by China and Philippines, alongside other Southeast Asian countries. “On this issue, we will make no compromise, no concessions and not even a tiny bit of violation is allowed.”
Although the U.S. seeks better ties with China, those “relations will not come at the expense of our relations with others in the region or elsewhere,” Hagel said in remarks yesterday at the defense university.
Code of Conduct
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations is seeking a code of conduct for the oil-and gas-rich waters in the South China Sea, through which some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run. Even so, the talks have made little progress since China agreed in July to start discussions, before introducing fishing rules in January requiring foreign vessels to seek permission before entering waters off its southern coast.
China is prepared to hold bilateral talks over territory and rejected the Philippine move for international arbitration on their claims to the Scarborough Shoal and other parts of the South China Sea, Chang said.
“Great powers must resolve their disputes peacefully and responsibly,” Hagel said. “Strengthening the peace and avoiding conflict requires leadership and it requires cooperation, requires courage, requires reaching out.”
To contact the reporter on this story: Gopal Ratnam in Beijing at firstname.lastname@example.org