We come in peace: defence minister

PUBLISHED : Monday, 06 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 06 June, 2011, 12:00am


Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie yesterday used his first speech at an annual regional security forum to stress China's peaceful intentions - a claim immediately challenged by two regional counterparts over the South China Sea.

Liang also told the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore that China acknowledged the need for co-operation with the US over cybersecurity and the difficulties of dealing with North Korea.

'I know many people tend to believe that with the growth of China's economy, China will become a military threat,' Liang said. 'It is not our option. We are not seeking [...] hegemony or military expansion ... This is a solemn pledge made by the Chinese government to the international community.'

In an unusual move soon after Liang's speech his Philippine and Vietnamese counterparts used the same forum to express concerns about recent Chinese incursions off their coasts. But Liang stressed the South China Sea was 'generally stable' and that China was 'committed to maintain peace and stability'.

He said that a lasting peace could be built only on a mutual sense of respect and equality between nations and warned against nations in the region joining alliances to target others.

Acknowledging questions about China's military rise, he repeatedly described it in a defensive role while saying China was still far behind US capabilities. Liang spoke for more than 45 minutes before taking questions from a broad audience of defence chiefs, military brass, scholars and analysts from around the region and beyond.

He surprised some in the audience by suggesting there was room for co-operation with the US over the problem of cyberattacks - just days after Google warned that hackers likely originating from China had targeted personal Gmail accounts.

'In China, we also suffer quite a wide range of frequent cyberattacks and it is hard to attribute the real source,' he said, mentioning concerns raised by US Defence Secretary Dr Robert Gates in recent weeks

More broadly, he said he was 'very optimistic' about the progress of thawing Sino-US military ties.

While observers noted Liang started stiffly as he accepted questions - a rare event for a Chinese defence minister - he eventually warmed to his themes. In apparent relief the event was over, he thanked and then saluted his audience.

He surprised many with his description of dealing with fraternal neighbours North Korea. Beijing is trying to get Pyongyang back to international talks with South Korea, the US, Russia and Japan. 'The work we have done with North Korea is much more than the outside world may expect,' he said. 'We are trying to persuade them not to take risks.'

Amid questions about precisely what constitutes China's 'core interests' - diplomatic code for its most sensitive areas and subjects - Liang emphasised territorial and political sovereignty. Not only were these inviolate but China could not accept any attempt to push it from its 'socialist path', he said.