(From Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative)
By Bonnie Glaser
Since China first sent a senior military officer to participate in the Shangri-la Dialogue (SLD) in 2007, it has come to the annual security meeting prepared with a carefully crafted strategy to deflect criticism and advance Chinese interests. This year was no exception. On the eve of the SLD, Beijing released its Defense White Paper, which for the first time sketched out China’s military strategy as a demonstration of Chinese transparency. Recognizing that there would be substantial attention paid to China’s large-scale land reclamation activity in the South China Sea, Beijing selected an admiral, Deputy Chief of the PLA General Staff Sun Jianguo, to head this year’s delegation.
Admiral Sun’s speech to the large gathering of defense officials and security analysts from around the world was devoted to providing reassurance of China’s peaceful intentions, emphasizing Chinese willingness to provide public security goods, and insisting that China’s actions in the South China Sea are “legitimate, reasonable, and justified.” There were also some jabs at the United States. Sun declared that China would never “subjugate itself to hegemony by external forces,” He denied that China is challenging freedom of navigation, and insisted that the Chinese military will “unswerving defend” the nation’s “core interests.”
In contrast to last year, China’s military representative stuck to his script. Provoked by Secretary of Defense Hagel’s harsh remarks in his SLD speech in 2014, General Wang Guangzhong had revised his text to rebut the criticism that China had undertaken destabilizing, unilateral actions asserting its claims in the South China Sea by putting pressure on the long-standing Philippine presence at Second Thomas Shoal, by beginning land reclamation activities at multiple locations, and by positioning the massive HD-981 oil rig into disputed waters near the Paracel Islands. This year, the Chinese delegation feared they would face similar muscular charges. In the run up to the SLD, Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear and Assistant Secretary of State Danny Russel had made harsh statements about China’s activities in the South China Sea in congressional testimony; a flight by a U.S. P-8A surveillance plane with a CNN reporter on board had released photos of China’s artificial islands and a voice recording of a Chinese military officer warning the U.S. aircraft to stay out of China’s “military alert zone;” and Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter had forcefully rebuked China in a speech in Hawaii, asserting that China was “out of step with international norms.”
But China’s fears that U.S. criticism would reach a crescendo at the SLD were not borne out, and the Chinese delegates were visibly relieved. Rather than singling out China for bad behavior, Carter acknowledged that other South China Sea claimants had also built military outposts, although he stressed that the pace and scope of China’s land reclamation activity far outstripped the others. Carter also pledged to continue to improve US-China military-to-military ties and noted the importance of building habits of cooperation. He emphasized that the Asia-Pacific region requires a security architecture in which “everybody rises and everybody wins.” Sandwiched in the middle of the speech were pointed messages that the U.S. would not be deterred from sailing and flying in international airspace and waters, and a reiteration that China is out of step with prevailing rules and norms. Carter also called for an immediate and lasting halt to land reclamation and an agreement among claimants to not further militarize the disputed features. Read more