Soft words on Michelle Obama forgotten when Hagel shows up

Michelle Obama's 'softening' visit was barely over when Chuck Hagel arrived to harden bilateral relations up again

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:33am
UPDATED : Sunday, 20 April, 2014, 5:33am

In the span of a few weeks, two very different high-level encounters have covered the spectrum of Sino-US diplomatic relations.

From the viewpoint of China's state media, US first lady Michelle Obama's recent visit to the country might "help soften" ties, while US Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel's trip served to "harden" bilateral relations.

A week after Obama's departure, while Hagel was still on the Japan leg of his Asia tour, official news outlets dropped the formal diplomatic-speak used to report on visiting foreign dignitaries and adopted a more combative tone.

"I can tell you frankly, your remarks made at the Asean defence ministers meeting and to Japanese politicians were tough and had a clear purpose," Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, told Hagel during talks. "The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks."

Fan was referring to comments Hagel made in Tokyo before his China visit regarding Washington's commitments to defend Japan and the Philippines. Hagel also criticised China's recent declaration of an air defence identification zone over a large area of the East China Sea.

In an exchange with Defence Minister Chang Wanquan , Hagel said: "We have mutual self-defence treaties with each of these countries, and we are fully committed to those treaty obligations."

In response, Chang said China's armed forces were "ready to assemble at the first call" and were "capable of winning" in any conflicts with Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands.

Adding fuel to the fire, John Wissler, commander of US marines in Japan, said on April 11 that US forces were capable of retaking the Diaoyu Islands from China if tasked to do so.

Hagel's visit came just days after the US Congress on April 7 approved the sale of four guided-missile frigates to Taiwan. In the wake of the arms sale, anti-American rhetoric dominated state media - an abrupt shift in atmospherics from Michelle Obama's visit.

In a People's Daily article headlined "US' series of hard words cannot hide its strategic weak points", the party organ said: "It seems the two [Wissler and Hagel] are singing a duet - one from a strategic level and one from a combat level," concluding that the comments "must trigger high alarms".

The remarks by Hagel and Wissler "blocked efforts to build a new type of military relationship", the Liberation Army Daily, mouthpiece of the PLA, said in an editorial.

"What is the purpose of the US Army's 'challenge'?" Beijing's Youth Daily asked.

"It is rare - even during the cold war - for active senior US army officials to 'challenge' China," the daily said, adding that "those who are good at wars do not wage wars".

If Hagel and Wissler were singing a duet, China's state media were a choir singing from the same page.

"China … has been repeatedly disappointed by the US' two-faced tactics," said Xinhua.

The overseas edition of People's Daily said the US had not made any pragmatic progress - or had made no progress at all - in eliminating the three obstacles preventing (improved) relations between the two armies. The "three obstacles" are US arms sales to Taipei; US military surveillance of China; and a US congressional act that expressly limits military-to-military exchanges and contacts between the US armed forces and the PLA.

As an emerging power, China is increasingly following a course Harvard professor Joseph Nye suggested would encompass the use of both "soft power" and "hard power".

There is growing evidence that political leaders in Beijing and Washington have also accepted Nye's view that a country may achieve its goals more handily through attraction than coercion or military means.