US dials down rhetoric on China

When the American and Chinese delegations trooped into the giant ballroom for the first of yesterday's plenary sessions at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, the air was filled with expectancy.

United States Defence Secretary Ashton Carter was the first speaker of the day and, given his recent muscular language against China over its reclamation efforts in the South China Sea, many, including the Chinese military delegation, expected another verbal fusillade from the Pentagon leader.

To the surprise of the Chinese, the reference to China didn't come as early in the speech as it did last year, when Mr Carter's predecessor, Mr Chuck Hagel, assailed China.

Mr Carter first spoke of China in complimentary terms, and when it came to the dispute over the South China Sea, he distributed the criticism to include other claimant states that had altered facts on the ground.

And, finally, Mr Carter committed himself to improving military ties with China during his tenure.

The Chinese takeaway from this, as explained by Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo, the officer fielded to rebut Mr Carter's criticism, was that the US defence chief had been "much more moderate than Chuck Hagel".

So, after a month of active military diplomacy and flag-waving on Asia, is the US backing off after drawing another line in the sand, as it did with its infamous red line in Syria?

Too early to say.

With many of the defence chiefs at this year's meeting being new to their jobs, including Mr Carter, Japan's Gen Nakatani and Indonesia's Ryamizard Ryacudu, there was always the possibility of fresh ideas emerging.

Thus, having ratcheted up the rhetoric, it may well be a smart move on Mr Carter's part to do some stroking of China as well.

"Secretary Carter said all he wanted to say before he got here," said a senior US official. "But he didn't mince words either, if you read his speech carefully."

To be seen as even-handed makes good sense for another reason. Mr Carter was appearing in front of a mainly Asian audience who, as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out on Friday night, have no wish to take sides in the US-China competition for influence.

At the same time, the Chinese too have to be mindful of Mr Lee's warning that Beijing risked souring ties with ASEAN as a result of its moves in the South China Sea.

There is also another factor for China to consider and some indications of this will be available today when Admiral Sun Jianguo, head of the Chinese delegation, speaks in plenary.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is visiting the US in September for a summit with President Barack Obama. Both sides have a stake in making a success of the summit but it is a fair guess that if Mr Xi sticks to his demand for a "new type of great power relationship", it could only be achieved if China shows a willingness to play by the rules.

As Mr Rory Medcalf, head of the National Security College at Australian National University, points out, stark confrontational language from Adm Sun would confirm Mr Carter's point about China being out of step with the region's rules and norms.

So the scene is set for some soft language from China as well.

Meanwhile, the US has already made some key signals to Asia.

First, it is making it clear it is not going away in a hurry. Indeed, it is gaining friends in the region.

His next stop, Mr Carter said early in his speech, is Vietnam, with which the US is going to sign an agreement that, for the first time, commits both nations to greater "operational co-operation".

He then heads to India, where an updated defence framework "will open up the relationship on everything from maritime security to aircraft carrier and jet engine technology co-operation".

Second, the regional power balance may be shifting as China rises but, as he reminded everyone, "the US is doing well too". Not only is the economy doing well, but also the military has "improved its readiness while maintaining its unmatched operational edge and unrivalled capabilities".

New technologies, "including a few surprising ones", are on the bake and the Pentagon will bring "the best platforms and people to the Asia-Pacific".

Mr Carter wasn't being jingoistic. His tone was measured. Yet, listening to him yesterday, it was impossible not to be reminded of the chorus of a Victorian-era war song:

"We don't want to fight but by jingo if we do;

"We've got the ships, we've got the men, we've got the money too."

This article was first published on May 31, 2015.
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