Defence minister makes a brave stand

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 09 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 09 June, 2011, 12:00am


Let's hope the historic appearance of Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie at the weekend's Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore is the first of many similar outings.

China's ministers have previously been conspicuous by their absence at the informal Singapore bash that has grown in stature over the years to become a key Asian defence gathering. It does, after all, fill a vital vacuum in a region that lacks any formal security architecture. The Association of South East Asian Nation's Regional Forum, for example, is generally a stilted affair, rarely given to open debate.

Liang spoke for 45 minutes, addressing head-on worries over the People's Liberation Army's rise, its intentions and relations with its neighbours. Then he calmly took questions, starting with tame mainland academics before confronting the hectoring tones of earnest US analysts.

Barrel-chested with a bulldog expression, Liang was never going to match the empathy of a Wen Jiabao or the warmth and wit of a Zhu Rongji. But he won praise for trying to tackle every question, tying matters down to Beijing's principles such as mutual respect and equality.

As he walked past the microphone on his way out, he could not resist reaching back for it to thank his questioners and stress the importance of such discussions. His flushed smile was one of sheer relief, matched by a surprise salute. No one had thrown any verbal hand grenades.

It did not all go Liang's way, with some neighbours urging China to match its words with deeds. Overall, however, his appearance was still ultimately positive for China's dealings with a nervous region.

As Woody Allen once said, 80 per cent of success is simply showing up.