09 June 2012

China's Uneven Military Diplomacy

The Economist compares the US approach to military diplomacy to the Chinese approach, and how internal politics are affecting it.

China’s leaders passed up an opportunity to match the Americans with some military schmoozing of their own. Unlike last year, when China sent its defence minister, Liang Guanglie, to the Shangri-La Dialogue, this year the highest-ranking Chinese delegate was a senior military academic, Lieutenant-General Ren Haiquan. This was a marked scaling back of China’s engagement with the forum, which has become an important venue for informal contact between Asia-Pacific military chiefs (as well as some from Europe) since it was launched in 2002.

John Chipman, the director of the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a London-based think-tank which organises the event, told participants that Chinese officials informed him in March that “travel schedules and domestic priorities” would make it difficult for China to send its minister this year. Domestic factors are the more plausible explanation. In the month leading up to the Shangri-La Dialogue, General Liang had visited Washington, DC (the first Chinese defence minister to do so in nine years) and attended a meeting of South-East Asian defence ministers in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh. But those events were more easily choreographed than the Singapore forum, where last year he was peppered with questions about China’s armed forces.

With the approach this autumn of sweeping leadership changes in China’s civilian and military leadership, it is not surprising that General Liang has turned even more shy than usual (it took the IISS ten years to secure attendance by a Chinese defence minister, even though the office ranks relatively low in China’s military hierarchy compared with other countries). The leadership transition has been unusually troubled since the flight of a senior regional official to an American consulate in February. This led to the detention of the wife of a powerful regional chief, Bo Xilai, on suspicion of murder, and the suspension of Mr Bo himself from the Communist Party’s ruling Politburo.

By: Brant

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