PLA officers turn on the charm at regional security forum in Singapore

China's delegates at regional security forum show a new sense of openness, urging co-operation and discussion

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 June, 2013, 1:17pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 3:09am


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Senior Chinese military officials came ready to talk at a major regional security forum over the weekend, surprising delegates with a new sense of openness at a time when Beijing is making strident claims to territory across Asia's seas.

No one expected any resolution of disputes over maritime boundaries, accusations of cyberespionage, Beijing's suspicions about America's strategic "pivot" towards Asia or other prickly issues at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.

But the charm offensive by the People's Liberation Army (PLA) officers, less than a week before Chinese President Xi Jinping meets US President Barack Obama for an informal summit, appeared to be designed to tone down the recent assertiveness by emphasising co-operation and discussion.

"The intensity of the Chinese engagement and the manner of their engagement is different," said John Chipman, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, which convenes the forum.

The defence minister of the Philippines, Voltaire Gazmin, also noted a shift. "It's a total turnaround. They have been talking about peaceful resolutions, no outward acts," Gazmin said. "But we still hope to see that these words are put into action."

China claims large swathes of the South China Sea. The Philippines and other Southeast Asia nations have challenged Beijing over those claims. Beijing is also in a row with Tokyo over islands in the East China Sea.

China sought to ease concerns about Beijing's intentions. "China's development and prosperity is a major opportunity instead of a challenge or even threat to countries in the Asia-Pacific region," Lieutenant General Qi Jianguo , the PLA's deputy chief of general staff, said.

Qi, China's top official at the forum, said dialogue "by no means denotes unconditional compromise" and he gave no ground on sovereignty claims, calling the presence of Chinese warships in the East China Sea and the South China Sea "totally legitimate and uncontroversial to patrol within our own territory". But he said "China is a peace-loving nation" and went on to answer more than a dozen questions from delegates.

An official accompanying US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel to the forum saw a change in the Chinese delegation. "Last year China had a very, very small contingent, a relatively junior-ranking contingent. This year they came in force … and have been very active in the panels," said the official. "That's very, very good. We want everybody to engage."

While there was scepticism about China's position from analysts during the sessions, Chinese officials were not shy about taking tough questions or asking their own from the floor.

Major General Yao Yunzhu , of the PLA's Academy of Military Science, asked Hagel after his speech how Washington could reassure Beijing that the US focus on Asia was not an "attempt to counter China's rising influence". "China is not convinced," she said.

Hagel replied: "That's really the whole point behind closer military-to-military relationships. We don't want miscalculations and misunderstandings and misinterpretations."