Asian gazing (part II): the US jabs China
3 Jun 2013|

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

One of the many complications of the US approach to China is the balance that has to be struck between caress and kick; between the language of engagement and estrangement. The Shangri-La speech by the new US Defense Secretary, Chuck Hagel was notable for its specific kicks at China. This was a robust way to help set the scene for a summit between a re-elected US President and a new Chinese President.

Over the dozen years of the Shangri-La dialogue, the first-up speech by the US has become a tradition. Having heard most of those speeches, I’d venture a quick guess that the actual wordage devoted to China was a bit down this year, but the content was even more pointed. Hagel was not taking refuge in the usual US request for greater Chinese transparency. The phrase now used is a call for ‘clarity and predictability.’

Rather than the familiar transparency language, the US Defense Secretary was pulling back the Chinese veil and jabbing. No shadow boxing here. In the case of cyber espionage, the language amounted to a poke in the eye. A senior member of the Obama administration is publicly confronting China on its cyber operations, thus suggesting that China’s denials should be viewed as close to lies. Consider the first set of jabs from Hagel:

While the U.S. and China will have our differences – on human rights, Syria, and regional security issues in Asia – the key is for these differences to be addressed on the basis of a continuous and respectful dialogue.  It also requires building trust and reducing the risk of miscalculation, particularly between our militaries.

That phrase ‘regional security issues in Asia’ is the broadest of canvases. You can cram a lot of differences into that picture. ‘Risk of miscalculation’, indeed. Yet with that salvo, Hagel was only warming up in his thrusts at China’s government and the People’s Liberation Army.  The section on cyber-espionage was not about the need for Chinese transparency but a statement about Chinese attacks:

We are also clear-eyed about the challenges in cyber.  The United States has expressed our concerns about the growing threat of cyber intrusions, some of which appear to be tied to the Chinese government and military.  As the world’s two largest economies, the US and China have many areas of common interest and concern, and the establishment of a cyber working group is a positive step in fostering U.S.-China dialogue on cyber.  We are determined to work more vigorously with China and other partners to establish international norms of responsible behaviour in cyberspace.

Flying to Singapore, Hagel had briefed American journalists that he would talk to the Chinese delegation about the US Defense Science Board report that nearly 40 Pentagon weapons and 30 other defence technologies had been compromised by online intrusions. The Board’s judgement was that these attacks were ‘attributable directly to the Chinese government and military.’ In the Hagel speech, the word ‘attributable’ was rendered as ‘tied to the Chinese government and military’.

In his in-flight briefing, Hagel said the US would keep putting the cyber issue to China:

I’ve invited the Chinese Minister of Defence to Washington in August.  I’ll be meeting with the Chinese delegation in Singapore. These are issues that we’re going to continue to deal with, frame up, put right at the top of the agenda…we intend to use all these venues and that closer cooperation and closer venue building to hopefully get us in a position where we can get some better understanding, clearer understanding, of what these rules of the road are, what governments’ responsibilities are.

The Chinese delegation was ready with its own version of straight shooting. The PLA has worked out most of the moves necessary at a venue like the Shangri-La dialogue; not least is having several senior PLA officers with excellent English able to engage in top-flight hand-to-hand in the Q-and-A sessions.

In her question to the US Defense Secretary, Major-General Yao Yunzhu, director of the Centre for China-America Defence Relations, at the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, jabbed back with gusto. She told Hagel that the US rebalancing was widely interpreted ‘as an attempt to contain China’s rising influence and offset the increasing military capabilities of the PLA’. The US denied the rebalance was directed at China, the Major-General said, ‘however, China is not convinced’.  Her final point was that there was a great tension between the US assurance that it wanted to engage with China and the assurances that the US was giving to its friends in allies in Asia.

The Hagel response even had some kick in the attempted caress. The US, he said, wanted from China what it looked for from other emerging powers like India or Indonesia—a strong country ready to take responsibility for security in the region. The US had the right to make such calls because it had been a Pacific power for 200 years: ‘We have interests here, too’.

What worried Hagel about China was the chance for a trifecta of misses—miscalculation, misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

Graeme Dobell is the ASPI journalist fellow. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.