WASHINGTON — The chief of China’s military warned Thursday that the United States should stay “objective” concerning China’s territorial disputes with its neighbors or risk damaging ties between the two countries.
Speaking at the Pentagon alongside Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, Gen. Fang Fenghui said China isn’t to blame for rising tensions in the region. But he promised the country would do what’s necessary to protect a disputed oil platform in waters claimed by both China and Vietnam.
China recently moved the drilling platform into an area Vietnam says is its exclusive economic zone under international law, sparking deadly protests in Vietnam. But Fang declared Thursday the territory had been “passed down by our ancestors” and that China would not concede “an inch.”
“We believe that the ones that are provoking those issues in the South China Sea [are] not China, but certain countries that are attempting to gain their own interests, because they believe that China is now developing its economy and the United States is adopting this Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy,” he said.
Dempsey avoided sparring with Fang before reporters over China’s muscle-flexing, but said the two had “rich” discussions earlier in the day about “what exactly is the status quo and who has been seeking to change it.”
Michael Auslin, an Asia expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, said the risk of armed conflict between China and Vietnam over the oil rig remains high.
“It would not be at all surprising if an accident happened that caused a loss of life,” he told Stars and Stripes. “The Vietnamese, quite frankly, have made very clear that they don’t back down — they don’t back down to anyone.”
Auslin said China’s aggressive actions and rhetoric towards Vietnam are part of a larger Chinese strategy.
“Each step is designed by China not to provoke conflict, of course, but to change the understanding of the status quo, so that if they get away with it in Vietnamese waters, then they continue build these [oil rigs] in other waters and use the same tactic of claiming that this is really Chinese territory,” according to Auslin. “It’s salami-slicing … China is across the board attempting to create a new type of understanding of the territory that is its own or over which it should have control.”
In addition to discussion of territorial disputes and regional tensions, Fang and Dempsey said they discussed ways to increase U.S.-China military-to-military cooperation. Fang arrived in the U.S. on Tuesday at the start of a five-day visit, which will include touring the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and one of the new U.S. littoral combat ships.
Fang said the U.S. rebalance had emboldened U.S. allies and partners who are now looking to leverage an increased U.S. military emphasis on the region to take advantage of China.
For example, Fang said, Japan’s “purchasing” of the disputed Diaoyu Islands — known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan — came after the announcement of the rebalance.
The United States has repeatedly said it does not take a side in the territorial dispute, but President Barack Obama said on a recent trip to Japan that the U.S.-Japan mutual security treaty applies to the islands, which Japan controls.
China takes its territorial rights seriously and won’t let them be constrained, Fang said.
“We do not make trouble, we do not create trouble” he said, “but we are not afraid of trouble.”
While in Washington, Fang met with relatives of American troops who helped Chinese forces fight the Japanese during World War II, including relatives of Gen. Joseph Stilwell, who led American forces in the China-Burma-India theater; and Nell Calloway, the granddaughter of Gen. Claire Lee Chennault, who commanded the notorious “Flying Tigers.” Fang also met Jay Vinyard, a 90-year-old former pilot who flew “The Hump” over the Himalayas between India and China.
“The Chinese people will never forget those who made all the outstanding contributions during the war, who fought fascism, who sacrificed their lives and were never able to come back home,” Fang said, according to China Daily, the largest English-language newspaper in China.
At the Pentagon, Fang compared China to an awakening lion — but a “peaceful, cordial and civilized lion.”
Dempsey, whose answers to questions at the press conference were far more concise than Fang’s, said the United States had many reasons to involve itself more deeply in the Pacific region.
“And why? Well, freedom of navigation, access to free markets, stability, partners old and new, and training,” he said. “And we will respond to threats.”