OPINION-Chinese diplomacy and restraint amid frequent military movements

The recent tense relations between Beijing and Washington over Taiwan and between China and India over the border dispute have shown a mix of Chinese diplomatic finesse and military restraint. Such finesse and restraint at least temporarily defuse the looming crisis in Beijing-Washington-Taipei relations and the tense Sino-Indian border relations.

On August 4, the Chinese Ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, was interviewed in the Aspen Security Forum. While Cui reiterated that China has “our historical claim [on some areas of the South China Sea],” the Chinese government is “ready to negotiate with other countries concerned for a peaceful resolution to the disputes.” Cui added that all sides have “to build mutual confidence, to aim at a much better mutual understanding of each other’s intention and [should] not allow any miscalculation or misperceptions to hijack the relations.”

On August 6, the Chinese State Councillor and Minister of National Defence, Wei Fenghe, had a telephone exchange with the US Secretary of Defence Mark Esper on bilateral and military ties. Wei repeated China’s position on South China Sea, Taiwan and the US’s “stigmatization” of China, urging the US side to stop using “erroneous words and deeds” and to take steps of de-escalating the tensions. Esper remarked that the two militaries should retain dialogue and consultation to manage crises and avoid misjudgement. As such, the top defence ministers from both sides at least started a dialogue to try defusing bilateral military tensions.

Three days before their dialogue, a professor of China’s National Defence University, Li Daguang, said that the Japanese Kyodo news had misunderstood his remarks by reporting that the Chinese military would carry out a large-scale landing drill aimed at “capturing” the Taiwanese-controlled Dongsha Islands in the South China Sea in August.  Li came out to clarify his remarks as a move to minimize the Chinese “threat.”

Both the Chinese and American sides flexed their military muscles soon after the dialogue between the two defence ministers. On August 7, it was reported that China’s first Type 075 amphibious assault ship had begun sea trials. On August 8, the Beijing-based South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative (SCSSSPI) reported that the US aircraft carrier, USS Ronald Reagan, and its anti-submarine P-8A planes were spotted in the southern coast of Taiwan. A spokesman of the Chinese Defence Ministry, Wu Qian, criticized the US for using “navigation freedom” as an “excuse” to make “provocation” and to “undermine the regional peace and stability.” 

The SCSSPI appeared to use the transparency of reporting the movements of US navy and air force as a means for the Chinese defence ministry to respond to American military moves. On August 8, the blog of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) showed the exercises of its air force in the South China Sea, stressing how the pilots verbally and bilingually used Chinese and English languages to warn two “foreign” airplanes of their intrusion into the Chinese airspace.

In response to the visit of the US Health Secretary Alex Azar to Taipei, two PLA fighter airplanes on August 10 flied through the middle line of the Taiwan Strait, triggering the Taiwan military planes to take off and broadcast warnings to the mainland side. Azar’s official visit to Taiwan provoked military gestures from the People’s Republic of China (PRC). 

On August 12, it was reported that the PLA deployed H-6J missile-carrying bomber to Yongxing (Woody) Island in the northern part of the South China Sea. This move was interpreted by some netizens as the PLA’s action of curtaining the ability of foreign militaries, especially the US, to operate freely in the region.

Immediately after Azar’s visit to Taiwan, on August 13 the PLA conducted military exercises in the coastal regions of Zhejiang province, flexing its muscles as a warning to Taiwan. Some military analysts saw the short three-day “exercises” more as a “temporary move” with “political taste” rather than military significance. 

On August 14, the PLA conducted a military exercise on the coastal region of Zhuhai and its related lights and sound alarmed the Hong Kong residents on the Lama Island. At the same time, the Hong Kong Garrison showed its military exercises on its blog. All these moves demonstrated China’s strong displeasure with Azar’s official visit to Taiwan.

On August 14, State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Tibet, stressing that the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) under President Xi Jinping’s leadership had great economic achievements, including external cooperation and participation in the Belt and Road initiatives. Wang inspected the border region, including villages and infrastructure projects. Military analysts interpreted his move as a demonstration of the Chinese sovereignty over Tibet.

Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi

On August 17, pro-Beijing newspapers in Hong Kong covered stories on the military exercises of the Hong Kong Garrison and the PLA exercises in the eastern coastal regions. Ta Kung Paoshowed the PLA’s amphibious tanks, including 072A, and other landing bridges, emphasizing that the PLA armour force is highly mobile and that it has the military capability to fulfil all kinds of duties. Both Wen Wei Poand Ta Kung Pao reported that the Hong Kong Garrison’s exercises in the South China Sea aimed at anti-terrorism and anti-piracy work, using torpedoes to destroy enemy targets.

Starting from August 22, the PLA conducted a five-day exercise along the coastal regions of Shantung province, testing cannons and missiles against enemy targets.

In the midst of all these military movements, it was reported that while President Xi Jinping had already ordered the PLA “not to shoot first” in case of any military accident, the Taiwan military issued a similar directive to the Taiwanese military, including the air force that may have more frequent encounters with the mainland PLA fighter planes.

At the same time, China and India agreed to resolve all the border problems in a more “expeditious” way, including the ongoing progress toward the “disengagement of troops along the Line of Actual Control” in the Ladakh areas. 

The Sino-Indian border dispute is not easy to be resolved. Firstly, assertive nationalism could be seen on both sides of the militaries and mass media; the challenge is for both countries to use diplomatic intervention to search for political solutions. Secondly, due to the long border, it is by no means easy for both sides to disengage their troops, but if the political will and diplomatic intervention exist, at least China and India are temporarily defusing the crisis. Thirdly, because the younger generation of the militaries on both sides appears to be highly nationalistic, it is a mutual challenge for both China and India to tame any military nationalism for the sake of maintaining peace. 

Managing military nationalism needs political finesse. On August 22, the Hong Kong media reported that mainland China launched a “campaign” of boosting the morale of the military by encouraging soldiers to write letters to their say “farewell” to their families if there were a sudden war. The PLA soldiers were mobilized to write not only letters to say “goodbye” to their families under a hypothetical war situation but also letters of “consolation to the locals” and letters expressing their personal hope and expectations. While the Chinese leadership is enhancing its diplomatic finesse and asking the military to refrain from “shooting first,” a kind of psychological preparedness for war has been launched among the hearts and minds of the PLA forces. Clearly, the Chinese leaders hope for the best but also provide for the worst.

This kind of “hope for the best, provide for the worst” mentality is understandable given the anti-China sentiment in the international environment. The recent Beidaihe meeting among the top Chinese leaders, according to overseas Chinese reports, came to a consensus that China is adopting three softline and three hardline policies, namely softline toward the US, the West and action, but hardline on domestic development, internal propaganda and Hong Kong. If the PRC leadership has decided to adopt a more softline approach to dealing with the US, the West and action, the military restraint amid frequent Chinese military movement is perhaps a testimony to the relatively “soft” measures adopted by the PRC leadership.

Still, the military developments are highly volatile mainly due to the anti-China rhetoric in the ongoing American presidential campaign. President Donald Trump is utilizing the anti-China card to boost his re-election chances, directly or indirectly heightening the tense US-China and Beijing-Taipei relations. Yet, if the PRC leadership remains calm and maintains its relatively “soft” and patient approach to dealing with the US, the volatile situation can perhaps be handled in a delicate and precarious manner.

Despite the fact that some American military strategists predicted a Chinese military attack against Taiwan in early 2021, there is no evidence to point to this direction because of the Chinese leadership’s priority over the control of Covid-19, flooding and a looming danger of food shortage in the mainland. President Xi Jinping’s recent appeal to the Chinese people not to waste their food has pointed to the priority of domestic issues in his policy agenda.

After all, a pattern of the PRC reactions to the dynamics of US-Taiwan relations and Sino-Indian relations have been identified. When the US was too close officially to Taiwan, as Azar’s visit showed, the PLA military exercises followed immediately. But such flexing of military muscles was simultaneously accompanied by a more decisive diplomatic intervention, which is currently more rational and calmer than the previously “wolf-warrior rhetoric,” as with the diplomatic developments between China and India have shown. Therefore, there are grounds for believing that China’s relations with the US, India and Taiwan will likely be maintained in a relatively peaceful manner but under a precarious balance in the short run.