Dialogue, not rhetoric, needed after China reveals its defence strategy
China's latest defence white paper is the first devoted to a military strategy. It breaks with previous policies by putting forward an offensive as well as defensive approach. Moving beyond a focus on land and air forces, it emphasises a blue-water navy for the protection of Chinese interests regionally and globally. It is what the nation needs to deal with potential security threats and challenges.
The timing of the release of the paper, the ninth in 17 years, is significant. It contains a veiled attack on the US and its surveillance operations; the foreign ministry last week criticised the flight of an American spy plane over artificial islands being built on reefs and shoals in the contested Spratlys group. The US has made clear it intends to further test Chinese sovereignty by sending more aircraft and perhaps even warships. Vice-President Joe Biden said his country would do all in its power to ensure freedom of passage, while Defence Secretary Ashton Carter warned that China risked becoming a pariah in the region. The heated rhetoric sets the stage for a fiery encounter at the Shangri-La Dialogue, the regional security summit that opens in Singapore today. All will impact President Xi Jinping's trip to the US in September.
China's rise and the importance of shipping for trade and resources has made a stronger navy inevitable. That has caused concern among some Asian neighbours, particularly Vietnam, the Philippines and Malaysia. But there is nothing wrong with a nation wanting to protect its interests and vessels have to have a reach beyond territorial waters to provide protection and deterrence. They can also help with international obligations, including navigational safety, peacekeeping and disaster relief.
Neither China nor the US are likely to budge on core interests. The US has taken a confrontational tack, making Asia the focus of its defence policy, beefing up alliances with China's neighbours and, in recent weeks, challenging territorial integrity. But the tussle over the South China Sea is only one part of a complex relationship; they also have common goals on which they can work together, North Korea and climate change among them.
Every effort has to be made to prevent mishaps like the collision of a US spy plane and Chinese fighter jet near Hainan Island in 2001. The white paper makes clear ambitions and it is bound to raise tensions. Greater transparency and communication are the best ways to avert misunderstandings.