Tuesday, June 7, 2011

China's Military and the South China Sea

Jun 6, 2011
China 'growing but not a military threat to region'
By Lin Zhaowei & Elgin Toh

CHINA'S military capability still lags the United States by 20 years, and while the country is modernising its armed forces, it is not a threat to regional security, said its defence minister yesterday.

'I know many people tend to believe that with the growth of China's economy, China will become a military threat. But it is not our option,' said General Liang Guanglie.

'China has not been, is not, and will not become a hegemon,' he said in Mandarin to an audience of more than 300 defence ministers, senior commanders and scholars at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

During his speech, the general emphasised the need for mutual respect and equality. He also reiterated the defensive nature of China's military expansion.

This year, China is poised to spend 601 billion yuan (S$114 billion) on the People's Liberation Army (PLA), as its armed forces is called. This is up 67.6 billion yuan, or 12.7 per cent, from last year. China's 2010 gross domestic product was 39.8 trillion yuan.

The budget, however, is a fraction of the United States' US$668.6 billion (S$822 billion) for its military complex and wars in fiscal year 2011.

China conducted test flights of its first stealth fighter jet in January, and is poised to launch its first aircraft carrier later this year. It has also reportedly developed a new anti-ship ballistic missile, which can be used against US aircraft carriers.

But Gen Liang yesterday insisted that 'quite a big gap' still exists between the military capabilities of China and that of more developed nations.

'Our forces are mainly equipped with second generation technology now, but more developed countries are... already moving into the fourth generation.'

He cited a visit a few years ago by former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who inspected one of China's most modern infantry brigades and told his hosts it was 20 years behind that of the US. 'I'm afraid that is still the case today,' said Gen Liang.

The PLA's chief of general staff Chen Bingde also remarked during his visit to the US last month that there was at least a two-decade gap between the two armed forces. He had said: 'To be honest, I feel very sad after visiting (several US bases) because I've realised how poor and underdeveloped our equipment is.'

Attending his first Shangri-La Dialogue, Gen Liang had a packed schedule, meeting many of his foreign counterparts on the sidelines of the forum.

He also met Vietnam's defence minister Phung Quang Thanh last Friday and they agreed to resolve disputes of maritime sovereignty rights peacefully. Both countries clashed last week, after Hanoi alleged that Chinese patrol boats had harassed a Vietnamese oil exploration ship.

In his speech yesterday, General Liang reiterated that the situation in the South China Sea remained stable. He also dismissed accusations that China, North Korea's closest ally, was not doing enough to ease tensions on the Korean Peninsula.

'I can tell you frankly here that the work that we have been doing at all levels with the North Koreans greatly exceeds your imagination,' he said.

Gen Liang is the highest-ranking Chinese official to have attended the dialogue, which ended yesterday. His participation in the annual security forum, attended by a record 18 defence ministers this year, was seen as significant in itself.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi, Pakistan's former ambassador to the US and UK, said the general's speech showed that China was keen to work with and not against the world, and it conducts its relations differently from superpowers of the past.

'We welcome the fact that he says true cooperation is based on accommodating another country's core interests,' she told The Straits Times. 'We never hear this from the US.'

But others noted there were still suspicions over China's military ambitions and its willingness to rein in North Korea.

Said Dr James Boutilier, Asia-Pacific adviser to the commander of Canada's west coast fleet: 'I think he's playing to a very hard, very sceptical audience. They've seen it and heard it all before. So it's actions rather than words that matter.'

Professor Wang Gungwu, chairman of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said China was in an 'impossible position'.

'There is virtually nothing that China can do to convince people of its benign intentions when they see China is on the rise and the US is on the way down.

'China can offer all the arguments about the defensive nature of its rise, but some people will never believe it.'

Vietnam buying six subs for self-defence: Minister
By Shefali Rekhi & Elgin Toh

VIETNAM has picked up six submarines from Russia but they would be used only in self-defence, said its Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh yesterday.

General Phung said the kilo-class submarines were 'to defend the country and take part in national construction'.

The nation's policy was 'completely in self-defence' though Hanoi would act to deter anyone who tried to compromise its sovereignty, he told defence chiefs at the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Kilo-class submarines are known for their ability to avoid detection.

Separately at a press conference at the dialogue yesterday, Vietnam's Deputy Defence Minister Nguyen Chi Vinh reiterated that the purchase was part of moves to modernise the military, which was the legitimate right of a country with a population of 80 million.

The Vietnamese remarks come as a row between Vietnam and China over territorial rights in the South China Sea escalated. Hundreds of Vietnamese joined protests yesterday in Ho Chi Minh City in front of the China Embassy demanding Beijing stay out of Vietnam's waters.

Differences between the two worsened following a May 26 incident in which a Chinese patrol boat reportedly destroyed the cable of a Vietnamese state-owned boat conducting research some 120 nautical miles off Vietnam's central coast, in an area claimed by China as well. Beijing said Vietnam's oil and gas exploration 'undermined China's interests and jurisdictional rights in the South China Sea'.

General Phung called for bilateral and multilateral efforts, more defence cooperation and dialogue to resolve the issue, making clear that Hanoi expected Beijing to 'honour the policies announced'.

Legal basis for activities at sea needed attention, he said. Parties must abide by the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and work towards concluding the Code of Conduct between Asean and China, discussions for which began in 2002.

The 1982 convention set guidelines for the status of islands, continental shelves, exclusive economic zones (EEZ), enclosed seas and territorial limits.

Besides Vietnam and China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Brunei have laid claim to the oil-rich Spratly islands in the South China Sea.

In his address to delegates yesterday, Malaysian Defence Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi pointed to the growing energy needs of countries in the region to explain the growing relevance of the issue, and called for confidence-building measures.

Conferences, workshops and seminars should be conducted, he said. 'Presumably when we are busy talking, we will have less time for fighting,' he quipped.

A 'special purpose vehicle' could be created to explore the possibility of sharing the benefits of the natural resource explorations, he suggested. 'Our KPI (key performance indicator) is not based on wars that we will win but how many are we going to avoid. Our role is to avoid the crisis, even the battle,' he said.

Philippine Defence Secretary Voltaire Gazmin, who has previously called on Asean to play a greater role in the dispute, said Manila was exercising self-restraint and following processes in place.

But 'actions by other states... unnecessarily make other states like the Philippines worried and concerned', he said.

[There is some truth that China's intent will always be suspect. There is also reason for nervousness by other countries around the South China Sea. China has a deep resource hunger and the nations are with reason nervous. But China's priority is to satisfy the hunger within, and not embark on military adventurism. They neither have the capacity, nor the inclination. At least not in the next 100 years.]

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