China-US relations

Chinese military dips into American songbook to entertain US defence chief James Mattis

Rare musical gesture eases tensions after a day of tough territorial talks

PUBLISHED : Friday, 29 June, 2018, 10:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 30 June, 2018, 12:35am

The American songbook is not usually inspiration for the People’s Liberation Army but on Wednesday it set the tone for a banquet held in Beijing for visiting US Defence Secretary James Mattis.

The tough official talks of Mattis’ three-day trip were set aside for the dinner as – in a rare gesture – PLA performer Cai Guoqing sang Edelweiss, a standard from the US musical The Sound of Music.

“Edelweiss, Edelweiss, every morning you greet me. Small and white, clean and bright, you look happy to meet me,” Cai sang, welcoming Mattis to the banquet hosted by Chinese Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe.

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The 50-year-old military singer is a fixture on Chinese state television, holding the record for the most appearances in one of the biggest TV events of the year, the Lunar New Year gala.

Mattis declined an offer to sing but one other guest and a US military officer at the gathering joined in as Cai made a circuit of the huge banquet table.

Among the guests at the dinner were and Chinese ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai.

Macau-based military analyst Antony Wong Dong said it was the first time PLA performers had entertained a visiting top US defence official and his team.

The relaxed spirit of the dinner was a contrast to the tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea that dominated the rest of Mattis’ trip.

Earlier in the day, Chinese President Xi Jinping told Mattis that China would not budge on its territory.

“We will not lose a single inch of the land we inherited from our ancestors,” Xi was quoted as saying.

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Mattis said the United States assigned a high degree of importance to the China-US military-to-military relationship and the US would like to manage differences and risks, avoid conflicts and make inter-military relations a constructive factor in bilateral relations.

The PLA’s song and dance troupes were set up decades ago to maintain morale among the troops but are destined to be downsized as the military cuts personnel in a massive modernisation drive.

One of its best-known singers is Peng Liyuan, Xi’s wife.