China strikes right tone ahead of talks between Xi and Obama
China's delegation to Asia's premier annual security forum, the Shangri-La Dialogue conference, has traditionally been low-key, there more to observe than participate. This year, though, the People's Liberation Army officers who attended were engaged and outgoing, asking questions in flawless English, stating positions and even being personable. Observers have dubbed the changed tone a "charm offensive", a concerted effort to project an image compatible with the nation's international standing. But it has to be about more than perceptions; if misunderstandings, miscalculations and misinterpretations are to be avoided, there can be no other way to interact with other nations.
The Chinese style has in the past been viewed by governments irked by the nation's growing might as combative. Territorial disputes, a strengthening naval presence and perceived prickliness in dealing with issues like cyberspying, trade and the value of the yuan has led to concern about intentions. President Xi Jinping promised a new era of understanding when he took office in March, but deepening rifts with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam over contested islands have appeared to say otherwise.
An outgoing, courteous and cordial approach by China at the Singapore conference was therefore welcome. Its delegation, led by PLA deputy chief of staff General Qi Jiangjuo , made a point of emphasising co-operation. That was on show during Qi's talks with US defence secretary Chuck Hagel, and although there was no progress on easing tensions, the US pivot to Asia top among them, their exchange was warm. A speech by Japan's defence minister, Itsunori Onodera, was praised by a junior PLA officer, while thoughtful observations and questions were raised at conference sessions.
No better tone could have been set ahead of the two days of informal talks between Xi and his US counterpart Barack Obama that begin tomorrow in California. It is what the world expects and needs of a leading global player.