Shangri-La Dialogue: Gen Wei's tough words may be for home audience, says US official

Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea L. Thompson speaks to media on the sidelines during IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 at Shangri-La Hotel on June 2, 2019.
Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security Andrea L. Thompson speaks to media on the sidelines during IISS Shangri-La Dialogue 2019 at Shangri-La Hotel on June 2, 2019.ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe's tough words on Taiwan, its military activities in the South China Sea as well as trade frictions with the United States were likely directed towards the audience back home, a top United States official attending the Shangri-La Dialogue said yesterday.

Providing the first official US response to General Wei's speech at the dialogue, Ms Andrea Thom-pson, the US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and Inter-national Security, said: "As I took it, it seemed very tailored towards his leadership."

Asked about Gen Wei's claims that China's construction activity on the South China Sea islands and reefs are legitimate and defensive in nature, Ms Thompson said the international community does not support Beijing's argument, which was likely tailored towards his domestic audience.

The sentiment was echoed by maritime specialist Collin Koh of the S. Rajaratnam School of Inter-national Studies, who noted that it has been nearly a decade since a Chinese defence minister has spoken at the dialogue.

"There was likely to be an inordinate amount of special attention paid by the domestic constituents on this event and how Gen Wei conveys the message, which has to reflect a firm resolve not to bow to Western pressure," said Dr Koh.

"So, today's speech sounds to me an attempt to strike a balance: The use of a hardline tone to emphasise what essentially has been already said upfront by Beijing, while hinting at the desire to cooperate and, above all, to avoid war with the US."

In Gen Wei's speech on the final day of the dialogue, following US Acting Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan's comments the day before, he warned Washington not to interfere in security disputes over Taiwan and the South China Sea, adding that China will not hesitate to fight back.

 
 
 

He also addressed trade tensions with the US, stating that the country is open to talks, but it will not be "bullied" by another country.

However, there were hints of a desire for mutual cooperation with the US, observers said, allowing for a relatively optimistic assessment of the future of Sino-US ties.

"I see potentially mutual efforts by both sides to meet halfway or at least attain some form of mutual understanding," said Dr Koh, who added that the tussle between the two countries is expected to persist for some time, but is unlikely to escalate into outright armed conflict.

Despite the US' and China's disagreements, Ms Thompson said she appreciated Gen Wei's presence at the dialogue. "There will be some areas where we will agree... some areas where we disagree, but you still have to have dialogue. So, I thought it was a positive reflection that he chose to attend," she said.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 03, 2019, with the headline 'Gen Wei's tough words may be for home audience: US official'. Print Edition | Subscribe