A hawkish general with 'a dove's heart and mind'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 16 March, 2011, 12:00am

'Overseas media call me a hawk. Well, I accept that because I am a soldier with hawkish eyes and claws,' Major General Luo Yuan said. 'But I also have a dove's heart and mind. Peace is my ultimate value.'

A rare outspoken People's Liberation Army officer, Luo is a senior researcher with the PLA Academy of Military Science - the military's highest academy - and also a Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference delegate.

'They also call me a hardliner, because I give hard opinions,' Luo said. 'But I am a cool-headed hardliner.

'When can you remember me saying anything to hurt another nation, or as a disservice to peace?'

He said every country's soldiers tended to sound hawkish.

'Soldiers talk like soldiers. And it would be unnatural if they don't, because they are not delegates for peace foundations after all,' he said.

Luo is one of the few PLA officers to give frequent interviews on national defence and international issues, along with Major General Yang Yi and Major General Peng Guangqian. They are seen as representing the common viewpoint of China's modern day military elite.

But he says that he and the other PLA commentators have no intention of using their opinions to influence diplomacy.

'We have a rule in the PLA: it is the Communist Party that commands the guns, never the other way round,' he said. 'It is up to the party to decide foreign policy. And the PLA will never transgress that line.'

Yet as increasingly diverse opinions were being heard, it was not right for the PLA to just remain silent, he said, adding that the most important military opinions were those from the Communist Party's Central Military Commission and the PLA's official spokesmen.

'The remaining opinions, like my own, are just personal opinions from PLA researchers,' Luo said.

However those personal opinions tend to garner many reprints and attract fans among mainland internet users, possibly because so many people share such views.

Luo, a specialist in foreign military studies, previously served as China's military attache in Copenhagen and has taken part in an academic exchange programme in the United States.

His hardline stance is highlighted by his adamant defence of China's military budget, due to increase by 12.7 per cent this year compared with just 7.5 per cent last year.

When asked if this year's increase indicated an ambition to match the PLA's capabilities with the nation's increasing global economic influence, his answer was simple: 'Why not?

'Why shouldn't China build up its self-protection capabilities?'

A country's national interests should always be matched with adequate military capabilities, he said, using the recent emergency evacuation of more than 35,000 Chinese workers from war-torn Libya as an example.

The Libyan evacuation was the Chinese government's largest overseas evacuation operation, with the PLA sending Arabic-speaking foreign liaison officers, one missile frigate (diverted from anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden), and four Russian-built Ilyushin Il-76 transport aircraft.

'However international observers assess our military capability, we have successfully carried out this mission in the face of a non-traditional threat,' Luo said.

'It shows that our training and learning in recent years, including multi-service operations and joint exercises with foreign partners, have all paid off.

'Our people can still count on the PLA wherever they go.'

As the government and civilian companies were the mainstay of the nation's overseas activities, he said the PLA's role was only to support. 'But it must be strong support, and a credible one,' Luo said.

At the same time, the PLA's limitations are easy to spot. A missile frigate is only a small naval vessel. And the Il-76s, the largest transport aircraft owned by the PLA, are built by Russia.

China is the only permanent member of the UN Security Council never to have deployed an aircraft carrier, and Luo said it should have its own 'large-scale seagoing military operation platforms'.

He avoided using the word 'aircraft carrier', instead using a phrase that covers all large warships, from aircraft carriers to large amphibious vessels.

Such large equipment was needed to protect China's growing national interests to push ahead with military modernisation, Luo said, adding that the Libyan crisis had also revealed the need to improve military-civilian coordination, and the drawing up of an appropriate legal structure.

'We need a law to cover the army's overseas non-combat missions to avoid accidents with other armies,' he said.

Rather than dwelling on what Deng Xiaoping meant with his tao guang yang hui policy - generally translated as 'hide your brightness, bide your time' - Luo said it was easier to look at the broad picture, and the country's core interests, including Tibet and Taiwan.

'Core interests are not for debate, not for negotiation, and not for trade-off,' he said, adding that China's national defence was now so strong that 'it would be wishful thinking for any country or any military group to force China to give up on its core interests by means of force'.