Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2014.12.04

Another Case of Chinese Double-Tongue?

JBpress on November 28, 2014

On November 21, Beijing called for "strengthening dispute management procedures" to cope with regional maritime crises. On the same day, however, it was also reported that China continues to build a huge artificial island, potentially its first offshore airstrip, on a reef in the disputed Spratly Islands in the South China Sea. Is Beijing sending mixed signals? No, as far as Tokyo is concerned, it is double-tongued.

At the 5th meeting of the Xiangshan Military Forum held in Beijing, General Chang Wanquan, China's Defense Minister, called for a new regional security system to resolve potential disputes in East Asia. General Chang gave a keynote speech to the forum hosted by the China Society of Military Sciences and stated the following:

"We believe that peace and stability should be put at the top of agenda. Disputes should be resolved through negotiations with full respect to historical facts and international law. The parties concerned should establish accessible and efficient dispute management and control mechanisms, refine their capacity to deal with crises, and prevent disputes from escalating."

Reportedly, another PLA general even referred to a possible agreement with Japan on a "maritime communication channel." Major General Qian Lihua, former director for external affairs at the Chinese Defense Ministry, stated that there is no disagreement between China and Japan and the two nations are expected to reach an official agreement when conditions are met.

According to General Qian, China and Japan had discussed the matter between 2008 and 2012 and already reached an "agreement in principle" which is not yet ripe to be signed. This September, military authorities of Japan and China had another high-level meeting on various maritime issues of mutual concern.

His remarks surprised some Chinese netizens, if not the silent majority of Japanese. The Chinese reactions varied. Some said, "No kidding, why with Japan?" "I would be upset, if this were true," while others wrote "Really? The United States would be disappointed if China and Japan didn't fight a war." The real question is, "Has China really changed its attitude in the maritime disputes?"

Hardly. For example, IHS Jane's, a major British defense publication, reported that satellite images show "the Chinese-built island to be at least 3,000 meters (1.9 miles) long and 200-300 meters (660-980 ft) wide," "large enough to construct a runway and apron" and that, "dredgers were creating a harbor to the east of the reef," large enough to receive major surface combatants.

How should we interpret these actions? The silent majority of Japanese are puzzled. Is China changing its assertive behavior and returning to its previous attitude in favor of international cooperation? Or, is China, with its unspoken ambition to become a regional politico-military superpower, determined to dominate and outpower the United States in the Western Pacific?

The recent series of events involving the Chinese military remind us of the so-called "Shidehara Diplomacy" of Imperial Japan. Kijuro Shidehara, then Foreign Minister, tried to ease tensions between Tokyo and Washington in October 1931, when Japan's Kwantung Army in Manchuria was secretly contemplating invading Northern China including Beijing.

Upon request from then U.S. Secretary of State Henry Stimson not to expand the frontline, Shidehara called General Kanetani, then Chief of Staff of the Japanese Army who agreed to stop the military advance at Mukden (Fengtian, now Shenyang). The secret decision was communicated to Stimson who made a public statement about the bilateral deal on non-expansion.

The Kwantung Army headquarters, however, had already expanded its frontline and started attacking Jinzhou near Beijing the day before Stimson's statement was made. This unexpected military offensive immensely angered Stimson and led Japan and the United States to a serious confrontation. Unsurprisingly, the Kwantung Army was also infuriated by Stimson's public statement.

History does not repeat but we can learn lessons from it. Shidehara Diplomacy was both a failure and counterproductive. The lack of civilian control over the Japanese Imperial Army was one of the main reasons why Japan went to war against the United States. The silent majority of Japanese wonder whether the Chinese PLA is committing a similar mistake in the 21st century.

Has internationally isolated China learned lessons from the Beijing APEC Summit or the subsequent ASEAN+3 and G-20 summit meetings? It may be premature to opine on what will happen but the PLA doesn't seem to have changed. The good news today is that there is no Stimson in the United States. The bad news, however, is that there is no Shidehara in the Chinese Communist Party.