Whatever reservations China’s top officials might have had directly confronting their American counterparts in the past, appeared to vanish completely during this week’s visit to China by US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel.
Following their meetings in Beijing, General Chang Wanquan, China’s Minister of Defence, spent nearly an hour directly attacking the United States for a multitude of offences during a joint press conference with Hagel, who, while standing right next to him, appeared stunned.
General Wanquan accused the United States of increasing hostilities throughout the Western Pacific by increasing defence cooperation with Japan, selling arms to Taiwan, siding with the Philippines (like Japan, a mutual defence treaty ally of the United States) in its efforts to protect its territorial waters from further Chinese encroachment. He said that China’s military can “assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.”
Rather than defending US allies, let alone the US itself, Hagel attempted to appease his Chines hosts by praised the People’s Republic, calling it the linchpin of security in East Asia. Hagel responded to Wanquan’s defiant assertion that “China can not be contained”, by denying that the US had any such intent. “The American rebalance to Asia-Pacific”, said Hagel, “is not to contain China.”
Hagel did push back on questions of cyber-security and China’s recent unilateral declaration of an exclusive air defence zone in the East China Sea, warning that such moves could one day result in armed conflict.
A centrepiece of the Obama Administration’s defence policy has been the so called “Asian-pivot” which calls for the US to redeploy a greater preponderance of its shrinking global military presence the region to counterbalance the rise of China and to reassure US allies.
It is highly unusual for top Chinese leaders to be so publicly direct. In fact, many China watchers report never having heard such a forceful public dressing down of any nation in the presence of a top official from that nation, let alone a top official from the United States.
In response to the unusual and harsh criticism, Pentagon Spokeman, Colonel Steve Warren said “It was a good dialogue.” After reading the transcripts carefully Warren said “I certainly didn’t sense any hostility.” A senior official travelling with Secretary Hagel echoed Warren’s response. The unnamed official, who spoke to the travelling media pool on background, said he didn’t detect any deterioration of relations between the two super powers and expected a tough dialogue.
Secretary Hagel’s China trip also included a rare and extended tour of China’s first aircraft carrier as well reaching agreement on steps designed to reduce tensions over North Korea.