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A PLA drill in the South China Sea. General Kenneth S. Wilsbach blamed China’s actions in the sea for fuelling mistrust. Photo: Weibo

US general says China seeks return to era of vassal states

  • General Kenneth S. Wilsbach, commander of the US Pacific Air Forces, says recent PLA military flights close to Malaysia and Taiwan are ‘escalatory’ and ‘destabilising’
  • He also expresses sympathy for Hongkongers prevented from joining the annual Tiananmen vigil at Victoria Park
The commander of the United States Pacific Air Forces has accused China of seeking to return to the era of vassal states, likening the Communist Party to Chinese emperors that demanded fealty from their neighbours.

During a conference call with Asia-based media, General Kenneth S. Wilsbach said on Friday it was “clear” Beijing aimed to be the sole superpower and expected other countries to “kowtow” to it.

“They don’t believe there can be multiple superpowers, they believe that there can only be one, and they want to return back to the glory days of [imperial] China where everybody else was a vassal state and everybody [kowtowed] to the emperor,” Wilsbach said.

“And the emperor now is the Chinese Communist Party.”

South China Sea: Malaysia scrambles jets to intercept 16 Chinese military planes

Wilsbach, who was promoted to the rank of four-star general last year, said Beijing’s militarisation of the South China Sea and other aggressive actions had fuelled distrust of its intentions across the world, pointing to recent moves by Britain, France and Germany to deploy warships to the region.

Beijing lays claim to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea, which carries about one-third of global maritime trade and is the subject of overlapping disputes involving Southeast Asian counter-claimants and Taiwan, which the Chinese mainland views as a renegade province. The Southeast Asian states say the Chinese claims breach customary international maritime law. Taiwan has a similar claim over the waters as the mainland.

Washington conducts regular maritime and air patrols in the strategic waterway as part of “freedom of navigation” operations it says are necessary to keep the waters open and challenge illegal claims, drawing frequent protests from Beijing.

General Kenneth S. Wilsbach is the commander of the United States Pacific Air Forces. Photo: Youtube

“The reason is they are all perceiving these activities by China and the trust for China is extremely low,” Wilsbach said. “All of this combined mistrust between us and the allies and partners is driving us to know what China is up to militarily because we don’t want any surprises.”

In the briefing, Wilsbach also addressed recent Chinese military flights close to Malaysia and Taiwan, saying these were “escalatory” and “destabilising”. China has said these activities are routine and that they abide by international law. “We set ourselves up for miscalculations around the region when we have some of these activities when we’re getting into people’s airspace that we shouldn’t,” said Wilsbach.

The general also expressed sympathy for Hongkongers prevented from gathering on Friday to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown, during which Chinese soldiers opened fire on pro-democracy demonstrators. Estimates of the death toll vary wildly from between 300 and 10,000 people.
Hong Kong police have deployed more than 7,000 personnel to prevent commemorations of the June 4 event, including an annual vigil at Victoria Park, citing the risk to public health during the coronavirus pandemic. Organisers have accused authorities of using the pandemic as a pretext to ban remembrance of the crackdown, amid doubts over whether future commemorations will be possible under the sweeping national security law imposed by Beijing on the city last year.
Victoria Park, where Hongkongers usually hold an annual June 4 Tiananmen anniversary vigil. Photo: K. Y. Cheng
“I have no beef with the Chinese people, I have a beef with the Chinese Communist Party,” Wilsbach said. “When we think about the Uygurs in the western part of China and the atrocities that are happening there, it’s no surprise that they would suppress the discussions and the commemoration of Tiananmen Square because that’s another example of the [party] overplaying their hand and completely looking past human rights and the way to do things. Which is why the world is looking at China with a microscope now and their reputation is pretty lousy, frankly.”
Wilsbach, who previously served as deputy commander of US Forces Korea, played down any change in policy towards North Korea following the Joe Biden administration’s release last month of a policy review that was widely billed as a middle path between the approaches of the Trump and Obama administrations.

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“Overall my guidance from the secretary of defence was ‘steady as she goes’, and what we had been executing as a strategy with respect to North Korea during the Trump administration, we are executing that same strategy during the Biden administration,” he said.

He said relations with South Korea, a major US ally that hosts some 30,000 American troops on its soil, remained as “solid as they get”.
The four-star general also expressed enthusiasm about the possibility of establishing US bases on Micronesian islands such as Palau, an independent nation whose defence is guaranteed by Washington under a compact of free association, and rotating military planes through Australia, a major US ally.

“When we look at possible places to disperse around the region, we’ve pretty much looked at every piece of concrete in the region, and we’ve analysed it and assessed it for possible use as a place to cooperate with and operate from,” Wilsbach said.

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Beijing aims to be sole superpower, U.S. general says