Beijing holds its own at gathering of military experts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 June, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 04 June, 2007, 12:00am

Beijing may not have had the highest-powered delegation at the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual informal gathering of defence ministers and military analysts, but it was the team on everybody's lips.

Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng , deputy chief of the PLA General Staff, used his address to appeal for peaceful co-operation and understanding, while at other times openly questioning US and Japanese missile-defence policies. He was also apparently at ease as he dealt with questions during open sessions.

As questioners demanded more transparency from China about its military expansion, General Zhang slammed a recent critical Pentagon report as 'unreliable', describing it as a 'product of the cold war mindset'.

One member of his delegation, Senior Colonel Yao Yunzhu, questioned the repeated cold war references used by US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, whose own speech marked the start of his first mission to Asia.

Colonel Yao asked whether the US was taking a cold war approach to China. Dr Gates was forced into considerable detail in his answer, stressing that he was referring to tough lessons learned during earlier tensions, particularly the way diplomatic and military engagement with the former Soviet Union prevented conflict.

'We've never seen this kind of confidence from the Chinese technocrats before,' one veteran Asian delegate said - comments widely echoed in the hallways. 'It's an important shift - the way Beijing is now openly defending its corner and scoring its own points at this kind of event.'

General Zhang is the most senior official Beijing has sent to the forum.

Organised by the London-based International Institute of Strategic Studies, the event is now in its sixth year. Actively promoted by Singapore, it has traditionally had a heavy Anglo-American overlay and been well attended by regional western allies, such as Japan, South Korea and Thailand. Taiwan sends representatives under the institute banner.

The lack of diplomatic formality is designed to foster open debate away from the state-room red-tape. This year, most delegations sent bigger groupings, including India, represented by Defence Minister A.K. Antony.

Dr Gates also said he welcomed the increased mainland participation, saying he wanted a freer, more open dialogue.

General Zhang met privately with US General Chief of Staff Peter Pace and other senior Pentagon officials. According to sources on both sides, General Zhang expressed private concern over the recent Pentagon report while the US side pushed for more openness, particularly over China's missile test in January used to shoot down a satellite.

Dr Gates said he could not call the weekend sessions a 'breakthrough', but said both sides were on the right path to a deeper, more meaningful engagement.