Beijing must not abuse new influence: The China Post

Novice soldiers exercise during a patrol along China's border river with Russia.
Novice soldiers exercise during a patrol along China's border river with Russia.PHOTO: EPA

A strong Chinese military can intimidate but cannot in itself instill trust.

By Frank Ching

The China Post/Asia News Network

As a new year begins, China has released plans for its military development, including a second aircraft carrier. At the same time, a military overhaul of its land forces has led to the creation of a General Command of the Army, a Rocket Force and a Strategic Support Force.

In a commentary on the second day of the new year, the state-owned Global Times newspaper explained that China required a stronger military because of "new conditions."

"The task that confronts China's armed forces is arduous and more than just safeguarding the nation's maritime and land territories," the commentary said. "As China's international cooperation grows, more Chinese enterprises go global and the country embraces greater responsibility to maintain regional and world peace, a strong Chinese army is needed."

That suggested that China needed a stronger military both to discharge its increased global responsibilities but also to protect its growing interests overseas.

One example of China's attempt to project its power around the world was the establishment in December of its first overseas military base, in Djibouti in Africa. It was explained that a base was required because the Chinese navy has since December 2008 been conducting an anti-piracy mission off Somalia.

Such an action would have been unimaginable only a decade ago as the Chinese had been highly critical of US bases overseas while upholding the principle of noninterference in other countries' internal affairs.

Currently, many countries rely on China for economic growth and on the United States for their security. With a strong military, Global Times suggested "China can be more politically appealing, influential and persuasive. ... As we gain more trust from other countries, many of them will no longer be dependent on the US for security and on China for economic benefits."

The crucial element there, of course, is trust. Will a strong China in itself cause countries such as the Philippines, Singapore or even Australia to abandon their US security ties when those ties are seen as offering protection against China? A strong military can intimidate but cannot in itself instill trust.

China evidently intends to be more active diplomatically in handling global challenges, something much to be welcomed.

Because of China's willingness to act jointly with the United States, substantial progress was made in the climate change conference in Paris last month. China also played a positive role in the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue last year and, increasingly, appears willing to help to resolve the Syrian crisis.

In a year-end review, the Foreign Ministry pointed to China having played an "an active part in international cooperation on climate change and the settlement of international hot-spot issues." That is the way a great power behaves. It tackles global problems because that is its responsibility rather than because it is doing someone else, such as the US, a favour.

Unfortunately, the mindset of linking global issues to China's bilateral issues with the US is not entirely gone. This was evident in a telephone conversation that China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi had with US Secretary of State John Kerry in late December.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry reported that the conversation had been held "at the request" of the American official, making Mr Kerry sound like a supplicant.

It reported that the two men discussed the Security Council resolution on Syria and said Mr Kerry had praised China for its "important contribution" and for having "played a positive role."

He then updated Mr Wang on the Iranian nuclear issue and the American official again "thanked the Chinese side for its important role" and "expressed his hope that the Chinese side can continue to offer assistance."

The report made it sound like Iran and Syria are purely American issues, that China had helped the US out, and that Mr Kerry was asking China to continue such assistance.

The Chinese report paraphrased Mr Wang as noting that the world was confronting challenges that require concerted efforts of all sides. But then it added that Mr Wang told Mr Kerry that "when seeking cooperation with China, the US should respect the core interests and major concerns of China," linking bilateral issues to resolution of global problems.

Mr Wang then "asked the US side to halt its arms sale to Taiwan and stop sending ships and planes to the waters near islands and reefs" of the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

This sounds suspiciously like blackmail, with China threatening to withhold cooperation on global issues unless Washington gives in to Beijing's demands in areas such as Taiwan and the South China Sea. That doesn't sound like the mindset of a major world power.