Muted response in US to China's new defence paper

BEIJING'S new policy paper outlining plans to boost China's military presence in Asia landed with a thud in Washington, with administration officials and analysts taking turns to either criticise the document for its messages of expansive powers, dismiss it as nothing new or simply ignore it.

At a White House press briefing on Tuesday afternoon, the Chinese defence White Paper was not mentioned.

Spokesman Josh Earnest, instead, spoke broadly about the US' continued interest in the South China Sea. And while he indicated that President Barack Obama was up to date on the situation in the region, Mr Earnest did not so much as acknowledge the existence of China's new policy document.

"The President has often talked about how critically important the situation is in the South China Sea. It is critical to the national security of the United States, it is also critical to the global economy," he said.

"The free flow of commerce in the South China Sea is something that needs to be maintained and the United States is committed to working with other countries in the region to protect it, and because it is a priority, you can expect that the President has been briefed on the latest in this situation and will continue to be."

At the State Department, spokesman Jeff Rathke was also dismissive. When asked about the department's response to the paper, he said he had yet to read it, adding that he might not offer comment on the paper even after he has read it.

"I'm not going to issue a judgment on the White Paper. We have certainly called on China to be more transparent about its military plans and procurements and so forth, but I'm not going to make a judgment of the White Paper," he said.

"I haven't read the White Paper. I think it's just been issued. And I think I've made our point of view clear about what our general desire is and what we encourage China to do with regard to its defence policy and its military development. But I don't have anything to offer other than that."

Mr Rathke reiterated calls by the US for China to use its military capabilities in a manner that will maintain stability in the region.

The White Paper marks out plans to boost Chinese naval capabilities and shift its air force stance from purely defensive to one that includes defence and offence.

The plans call for the Chinese navy to move beyond "offshore waters defence" to "open seas protection".

For pundits, the document is a clear power play by Beijing.

With tensions in the region rising over aggressive Chinese land reclamation in contested waters, the release of the military plan was likely timed by Beijing to send a message to its Asian neighbours as well as to the US.

Said Ms Yun Sun, senior associate with the East Asia Programme at the Stimson Centre in Washington: "Previous papers were released in different months, so it's hard to verify that China intentionally chose the timing as a response to the US recent positions on the South China Sea. However, Beijing certainly understands this is the week for the Shangri-La Dialogue. This is hardly a coincidence."

The Shangri-La Dialogue is an annual security summit in Singapore that often draws Asia-Pacific defence ministers and military chiefs.

jeremyau@sph.com.sg