Chinese Military Chief's Rudeness Bodes Ill for the Future

      July 18, 2011 14:09

      China's top military officer Chen Bingde launched into a 15-minute tirade against the U.S. during a meeting with South Korean Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin on Thursday. Chen said, "Being a superpower, the U.S. says this or that to other countries, but it never listens when other countries express themselves in a similar way." Chen added the actions of the U.S. suggest it wants to "overpower" other countries.

      Chen's comments were discourteous and violated diplomatic protocol. The portion of a meeting between officials that is open to the press is a time to exchange greetings and other casual remarks, and officials commonly restrict their comments to bilateral issues. Using such a setting to harshly criticize a third country, and a close ally of the visitor's, is unlikely to make the visitor feel comfortable. Chen, who is the chairman of the People's Liberation Army General Staff, ranks lower than China's defense minister, Kim's counterpart. It was a diplomatic discourtesy for Chen to ramble on and on without giving his senior a chance to speak.

      During a meeting earlier this month with Mike Mullen, the head of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Chen raised the issue of U.S. forces holding joint military exercises in the South China Sea with the Philippines and Vietnam and urged Washington to refrain from intervening in the region. But Mullen said the U.S. has had forces stationed in the South China Sea for a long time and this commitment would continue. That was evidently why Chen vented his frustration to the South Korean defense minister.

      China sets great store by gaining exclusive control over the South China Sea, which connects Southeast Asian countries, and the East China Sea, which is connected to Korea and Japan. A power struggle is unavoidable between China and the U.S., which is seeking to keep Beijing's influence in the region in check. But China cannot afford an armed confrontation with the U.S. and has opted to pressure Washington's allies in the region instead. Chen's comments reflect that strategy.

      They also foreshadow China's future course of action and serve also as a warning to its regional neighbors. But the more China resorts to crude tactics that do not befit its global status, the more suspicious of its intentions its neighbors will grow. Seoul will have to make plans so that the situation in Northeast Asia does not force it to choose between China and the U.S.

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