By William Choong, Senior Writer
LAST week, I attended an arms control conference in Beijing. Jointly organised by the United Nations Office of Disarmament and the Chinese government, the seminar proved to be an eye-opener.
On the first day, Professor Zhu Feng of Beijing University sketched out arguments for and against nuclear disarmament. He highlighted how drastic cuts in nuclear weapons would be possible, pending further military-to-military dialogue between the United States and China, and China becoming 'more transparent' in its military affairs.
The last statement piqued my curiosity. Later, I asked Prof Zhu what exactly did China mean by transparency, particularly given recent reports about Beijing's development of a stealth fighter and anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBMs) that could sink US aircraft carriers.
Nothing prepared me for the answers that followed.
Said Prof Zhu with a tinge of irritation: 'What is China going to do with such new weapons? Come on. How to use your weapons? You want to kill the US? You want to overwhelm Asean? One day, use the ASBMs to bomb Singapore? Any imaginations this way will prove to be useless.'
China's weapons, such as its nuclear arsenal, are tools to address future uncertainties, he said. This was not 'exceptional', he said, given the 'anarchical' nature of international relations.
Later, I learnt from Asian media colleagues that Ambassador Cheng Jingye, director-general of China's Department of Arms Control and Disarmament, also had a couple of answers headed my way. (I had left earlier.)
'The question from The Straits Times correspondent... I wonder (about) his identity. This question should have come from North America or Western Europe.
'Weapons are for defensive or offensive (purposes). I don't think any country will say that its weapons are offensive. The same is true for China... I haven't heard any questions to the effect as to why China doesn't have the right to have (these weapons),' he said.
The question smacked of 'racial discrimination', he said, adding that he appreciated its frankness and welcomed an 'exchange of views'.
Speaking to other seminar participants later, we agreed that the comments were rather disturbing. First, my question had been open-ended and harmless. Countering it with hyperbole was out of order - not to mention, impolite.
Second, we agreed that my Chinese interlocutors had overreacted. Perhaps as a participant from a small state (and an ethnic Chinese at that), I had posed a question that was deemed a tad too critical.
'They were either trying to be smart, as they sought to dodge your question, or they were simply incompetent and did not know how to answer it,' a participant told me later.
More importantly, the issue about China's transparency is not merely an American or Western construct. The same sentiment is shared by many countries in Asia.
Due to China's perceived lack of military transparency, many Asian countries have resorted to self-help behaviour. In 2009, Australia's Defence White Paper virtually singled out China and called for a massive Australian naval build-up. Japan's defence forces, which for long had eyed North Korea warily, are now primed for a potential Chinese challenge.
Last year, Asean countries were spooked when China declared the disputed South China Sea as a 'core interest'. Regional countries and China are not locked in an arms race yet, but there is a palpable action-reaction dynamic building up, especially in North Asia.
Arguably, it does not take a political scientist to arrive at reasoned guesses as to what China's new military kit is for. Its ASBMs, for example, would impose a restraining effect on US aircraft carriers if there is another Taiwan Strait crisis.
That said, only China can explain the rationale behind its build-up, and the explanations would have to be more detailed than catch-all remarks about hedging against uncertainty.
The expressed desire for transparency is not anti-China; rather, it is pro-China. A China that addresses the concerns of not only the US, but also countries in Asia, would make for a more stable region for all. As a former US defence official once put it, capital is a coward that flees in the face of instability.
Admittedly, China is communicating better and using soft power to address concerns about its rise. During President Hu Jintao's recent visit to the US, it ran advertisements at New York's Times Square showcasing luminaries such as Chinese astronaut Yang Liwei.
Younger envoys such as Ambassador Cheng are also generally cosmopolitan and urbane, and keen to speak to the media. One Washington-based analyst said: 'I have attended arms control events in Geneva for years. For a long time, Chinese diplomats just came and had shouting matches with us. Now, they are more competent and effective.'
It is probable that China will improve on its public diplomacy over time. Fears about its rise will always be with us, but for the greater good, it is in Beijing's interests to dispel them.
In the recently published book Lee Kuan Yew: Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew summed up the Chinese psyche well: 'The more successful they are, the less they will think of you and the more they will treat you with condescension,' he said.
If the Chinese act like this when their gross domestic product and defence spending are, respectively, only a third and one-seventh that of America's, imagine what they would be like when they hit parity.