Is China trusted?

Marites Dañguilan Vitug
There is growing skepticism towards China’s security intentions but, with its size and wealth, it can afford to disregard this

Marites Dañguilan VitugSINGAPORE – Trust. This was the most over-used word during the recent Shangri-la Dialogue, an annual global gathering of high-level defense and security officials. The weekend meeting in Singapore began with the T word—its newest permutation is “ strategic trust”—and ended with it.

As John Chipman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, the Dialogue organizer, quipped at the closing of the weekend meeting, “Strategic trust has become the theme of this Dialogue.”

Prime Minister Nguyen Tan Dung of Vietnam set the tone in his keynote speech by calling for the building of “strategic trust,” saying “if trust is lost, all is lost.” US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel emphasized that trust and confidence are essential in a relationship between countries.

Various speakers repeated this message, from Lt. Gen. Qi Jianguo, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army of China, to Australia’s Defense Minister Stephen Smith to Ng Eng Hen, Singapore’s defense minister.

It follows that trust comes with transparency. A number of speakers highlighted the importance of defense white papers, that countries should be open about their military capabilities, intentions, budgets, and procurements.

Hotlines between armed forces are a vital tool, the discussions showed, but these can only be effective if officials know each other and have had experience dealing with one another. Hotlines don’t work when persons call each other out of the cold.

The ringing call for trust is timely and important as this year’s Dialogue takes place at a period of heightened tension in Asian hot spots, including maritime disputes in the South China Sea (West Philippines Sea to us). It is precisely because of this lack of trust, which contributes to conflict, that the Dialogue tried to make up for it through words. After all, it is a highly-regarded forum to exchange polite views and cool down temperatures.


But words can only go so far. Proof was in the reaction to Qi’s speech. While he professed that China absolutely abhors the use of force and coercion, citing a 30-year history of not provoking any war, and the motherhood state policy of pursuing peace, many in the audience remained unconvinced.

Bonnie Glaser, a China watcher with the US-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, pointedly asked Qi during the open forum: “Can you explain the contradiction between China’s commitment to peace and the use of vessels to coerce neighbors, as seen in the Scarborough Shoal? Why is China opposed to using the UNCLOS to resolve maritime dispute?”

To which Qi answered that China is not seeking hegemony. He said that China sends patrol ships in the South China Sea and East China Sea as part of the exercise of China’s sovereignty and repeated their position that history is the basis for their claim. They have “never deliberately provoked” other countries, he added.

China has always believed, he said, in resolving disputes on a bilateral basis which is in line with their “friendship and partnership” with the Philippines.

Qi was peppered with questions so he couldn’t help but compare himself to Hagel who, in an earlier session where he was the lone speaker (Qi was part of a panel), was asked a pile of questions.

I talked to some Dialogue participants and asked what they thought of Qi’s speech. Most showed skepticism toward China. “It’s like going to a doctor who, for the fourth time, assures you that you’re well despite what you’re feeling so you don’t believe what he says,” an analyst said.

A diplomat shares a similar sentiment, saying that China refuses to acknowledge any challenge to its position, referring to other states’ claim to the South China Sea, thus it does not encourage confidence. The outspoken Glaser later said in a TV interview that China missed the opportunity to assure other countries.

Tone deaf

China has not sent its defense minister to any of the Dialogues, showing a hesitation to fully engage with this private initiative. But members of its low-level delegation are articulate and do not miss a chance to defend and explain their country’s position.

Will they bring home the questions and sentiments they heard during the Dialogue? Will these be discussed in high official circles? And does China even care about what other countries think of them?

It’s hard to say. Analysts who watch China tell me that there is a hard-line faction that does not give any importance to what the world says about them. But there is a group that watches signals and is open to international feedback. “That’s part of their internal dynamics,” a Singapore-based analyst says.

Through the years, China has shown that it pretty well disregards other views. The clearest example, in our part of the world, is its unilateral 9-dash move that takes away other countries’ exclusive economic zones. After all, they are a global power with an economy that has roared past that of Japan and other Asian countries.

With its size and wealth, it can afford to be politically tone deaf. China is a vast market, a giant trading partner, a huge investor, a generous giver of aid. In its view, size is might. –

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Marites Dañguilan Vitug

Marites is one of the Philippines’ most accomplished journalists and authors. For close to a decade, Vitug – a Nieman fellow – edited 'Newsbreak' magazine, a trailblazer in Philippine investigative journalism. Her recent book, 'Rock Solid: How the Philippines Won Its Maritime Case Against China,' has become a bestseller.