Even as Defence Minister Liang Guanglie is in India on a five-day visit this week to boost ties, the departure of another top People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General to Southeast Asia has been seen by analysts here as reflecting a new diplomatic push by the Chinese military to address regional concerns.
On Tuesday, the PLA’s Deputy Chief of General Staff Ma Xiaotian met with Vietnamese Defence Minister Phung Quang Thanh in Hanoi, calling on both countries to boost mutual trust against the backdrop of recent strains in the South China Sea. General Ma will also visit Myanmar, Malaysia and Singapore later this week.
His visit follows a recent trip by Deputy Chief of General Staff Cai Yingting to the U.S., during which both countries discussed the tensions in the South China Sea and recent strains between China and Japan over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
The visits by the three senior PLA officers have been seen by Chinese analysts as reflecting a new push by the military to address concerns, particularly among China’s neighbours, ahead of this year’s leadership transition.
According to Meng Xiangqing, deputy director of the Strategic Research Institute of the PLA’s National Defence University, China “is increasingly using military diplomacy to supplement other exchanges”.
The central feature, he told the official China Daily, was “to create a secure region”. However, he added, China “will not yield when sovereignty and territory are concerned”.
The message of building mutual trust —voiced by General Liang in New Delhi and echoed by General Ma in Hanoi — has come as a marked contrast to recent hard-hitting comments from military strategists such as Major General Luo Yuan, who have called on Beijing to take a harder line — particularly towards Japan over the disputed Diaoyu or Senkaku islands.
Before he departed on his four-nation trip, General Ma stressed that while China had the ability to defend its waters, it had not used military force. “If we were to do so, it would be as a last resort,” he told Hong Kong-based Phoenix Television.
“We are conducting talks, using diplomatic means and some civilian, law enforcement means, to resolve the conflict. This way is the best,” he said.
General Liang’s trip to New Delhi was, similarly, a “a demonstration of goodwill since military ties between the two countries have witnessed twists and turns,” Wan Wei, a researcher at the PLA Academy of Military Science, told the China Daily. The inclusion of a commander of the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) military district Yang Jinshan in the military delegation to New Delhi was highlighted by State media as reflecting a move to build trust over the long-running boundary dispute.