Between April 5-19, Chinese Defense Minister General Cao Gangchun (the second ranking professional soldier in the PLA supreme command) made an unprecedented five-state visit to North Korea, Malaysia, Singapore, Vietnam and South Korea. The trip was significant in several ways. First, it took place against a background in which China’s security gravity is shifting from North, Northwest and Southwest to the eastern coast at an accelerated pace. Second, the complicated regional affairs have increasingly acquired an uncertain military component, largely due to the intensified territorial disputes. Third, China is seeking to upgrade its bilateral relations with its neighbors to cater for both domestic needs and international dictates. The longer-term impact of General Cao’s endeavor should be closely watched, while the immediate results can be analyzed from the limited information available from various sources.
The Visit to Pyongyang
The first stop of Cao’s trip was North Korea. Despite the bilateral alliance relationship since the early 1950s, the military ties between the two countries are not as close as observed from the outside. Historically, Kim Il-sung’s purge of his senior generals with PLA origins and his balancing act between Beijing and Moscow planted seeds of distrust among PLA leaders . China is presently vigilant against any incidents in Pyongyang that may drag it into an unwanted conflict with the United States. Amid improvement in state relations due to more frequent summit meetings in the last few years, the contact between the two militaries does not go much beyond exchange of courtesy leadership visits that occur rarely. There are virtually no standard activities between the two military allies, such as sharing of intelligence, exchange of students and joint exercises. When Beijing replaced the armed police with the regular army in 2002 along the Sino-DPRK border as a counter-measure for any emergent situation in the Peninsula, Pyongyang took it as China’s hedging strategy that may turn against the interests of the DPRK. The border guards of the two sides seldom work together to prevent human trafficking and illegal activities. In international conferences organized by PLA affiliates, some Chinese speakers viewed North Korea’s nuclear program as the cause of tension in the region. This has triggered protests from DPRK representatives. For instance, North Korea participants to a Beijing workshop on the Korean situation in January 2006 criticized Liu Guoliang, a nuclear scientist associated with the PLA General Armament Department, for his biased view against the DPRK.
General Cao’s visit to Pyongyang reflected the nature of the ties: friendly but not substantial. When meeting with General Kim Il-cheol, deputy commander-in-chief, he expressed hope that both militaries carry forward the tradition and look into the future toward enhanced cooperation. He reiterated Beijing’s position on the issue of nuclear standoff on which he emphasized that it was basically an issue for parties directly involved (the DPRK and the U.S.) but Beijing would always assist for a peaceful settlement (Zhongxinwang, April 5). Clearly, China’s position as a stakeholder in a nuclear free Peninsula does not converge with the DPRK’s and its pressure on Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party Talks would not be music to Kim Jong-il’s ears. This may be the chief reason why Cao did not even have a chance to meet Kim, an abnormal treatment to the defense minister of the only ally of the DPRK.
Although it is impossible to know what was on the list of the issues discussed, border security was on the agenda, as seen from the specific inclusion of Chang Wanquan, commander of the Shenyang Military Command and the second-highest ranking officer in the delegation of 18 generals. Beijing’s offer of some military equipment to the DPRK has been the practice of every visit by the Chinese defense ministers in the past. The question is whether the aids are linked to the Six-Party Talks. Kim Jong-il’s failure to receive Cao seems to point to Pyongyang’s unwillingness to return to Beijing for the nuclear talks.
The Visit to Seoul
Compared with General Cao’s low-key and short tour to the DPRK (two days), his visit to Seoul was longer (five days), more transparent, constructive and substantial. It is also interesting to note that after Cao ended his activities in Pyongyang, he flew to Southeast Asia before returning to the Peninsula. Given rising petrol prices, the journey had to be more expensive. Yet this may be necessary in that when Cao met with President Roh Moo-hyun on April 17 he detailed his DPRK tour and his view on the Six-Party Talks (Chosunibo [Chinese edition], April 19). He needed to report back first to Beijing in order to receive further instructions on what should be conveyed to President Roh. Moreover, before Beijing and Seoul established diplomatic relations in 1992, the former pledged to Pyongyang that the Sino-ROK interaction would be non-security oriented. This delayed General Chi Haotian’s visit (Cao’s predecessor) to Seoul by eight years. A separation of three states before Cao’s reach in South Korea showed Beijing’s sensitivity toward Pyongyang’s psyche, although it would greatly reduce the complications in the Beijing-Pyongyang-Seoul tripartite relations.
The Korean schedule for Cao was also interesting. As soon as he arrived in the ROK, he was invited to Jeju for closed-door discussions, which yielded fruitful results. Among the agreed items for cooperation were institutionalized ministerial contacts; joint naval and airplane drills for humanitarian purposes in the Yellow Sea; and maritime confidence-building measures. The ROK military also proposed to create hot-line communications between the two navies and air forces (Xinhua, April 17; AFP, April 18; United News Agency, April 17).
Although the Chinese side did not give a definite answer on the spot, it agreed to discuss the matter at the working levels. To a large extent, the Chinese hesitancy is linked to its consideration of Pyongyang’s reaction. To a lesser degree, the U.S.-ROK military alliance relationship may also complicate Beijing’s calculus. Yet Beijing is certainly happy with South Korean Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-ung’s suggestion that ROK-PRC military relations should be elevated to the level of ROK-Japan’s (Asia Times, April 15). What is not known is how the two sides analyzed their rising tensions with Japan due to the territorial disputes (East China Sea for Beijing and Dok-do for Seoul). The latest evolution shows that each of the disputes could ignite military sparks.
The Visit to Southeast Asia
Cao’s visit to Vietnam, Malaysia and Singapore was clearly linked to China’s strategic interests in Southeast Asia that can be concretely defined by the following PLA concerns: first, consolidating China’s southwest flank in order to concentrate on the east coast, as mentioned earlier; second, seeking to achieve regional realignment; and third, securing safe sea lines of communication (SLOCs)for China’s oil transportation. Each of these goals needs to be backed up by a smooth military relationship between Beijing and its ASEAN neighbors. In a way China is quite weak in this aspect and this highlighted the importance of Cao’s visit.
In order to deal with rising security threats from the East China Sea (mainly from Taiwan’s independence moves), the PLA has adopted a huge project of capability redeployment. The force posture along China’s land borders has been made defensive, while that for the east coast more offensive. One of the preconditions for the PLA to achieve a smooth shift is to avoid a two-front confrontation. For this China has worked hard to ease tension in the South China Sea. Cao’s visit to the two parties to the Spratley dispute would have served this purpose, as it emphasized the status quo and codes of conduct in the region.
Beijing’s search of regional strategic realignment is seen from its effort to convince its neighbors to shy away from a China policy based on balance-of-power. To the PLA, such a policy would mean to provide military access to the U.S. when the two countries engage in a confrontation. The specific concerns to the PLA include whether Vietnam would lease the Cam Ran Bay to the U.S. Navy after the Russians end the contract. Singapore has already allowed U.S. military facilities on its territory. The PLA has always looked at the U.S. presence in Singapore with caution. For instance, this would greatly shorten the time for U.S. carrier battle groups to enter the west Pacific theater. Moreover, Singapore’s use of Taiwan as a training field for its soldiers may become a contradiction for the country’s Taiwan policy. Finally, since Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s Taiwan visit in 2004 the bilateral military relationship has been cool. Cao’s tour to Singapore may have reinstated this relationship to its level prior to 2004 (Xinhua, April 13). It is likely that the general asked his counterpart to clarify how the U.S. military presence is employed and if China could help in relocating Singapore’s military facilities in Taiwan.
Malaysia and Singapore are key to the safety of the Malacca Strait through which 70 percent of China imported oil is transported. Energy security has been high on Beijing’s national security agenda. The Malacca Strait is particularly identified by President Hu Jintao as “the Malacca Strait dilemma” (China Brief, April 12). General Cao’s visit to the two countries may have a specific aim to help the littoral states to set up some institutionalized mechanism to ensure that the Strait will not fall prey to destructive activities (Asia Times, April 15).
In summary General Cao’s five-state visit indicated that Beijing has stepped up its peripheral diplomacy to “keep the backyard in order,” to quote the words of one senior Chinese diplomat. The military component of this endeavor is crucial for the success of this initiative. During his tour, Cao repeatedly stressed China’s peaceful intentions and he seemed to get the message across. Yet the ultimate test is how the PLA uses its mounting capabilities in dealing with regional flashpoints.
1. For more on this background, see You Ji, “China and North Korea: A Fragile Relationship of Strategic Convenience”, Journal of Contemporary China, Vol. 10, no. 28, 2001.