HONG KONG (Reuters) - In a break from months of saber rattling, China under new President Xi Jinping appears to be moderating its approach to a potentially explosive territorial dispute with Japan and taking measures to prevent accidental conflict.
Ahead of Xi’s appointment last Thursday, General Liu Yuan, a senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officer close to the new leader, warned of the danger of war with Japan in a series of conciliatory commentaries and public remarks at odds with earlier bellicose rhetoric from military hawks.
In addition, maritime experts believe Beijing’s announcement a week ago that it would unify its armada of paramilitary maritime agencies under a single command will tighten control over these forces on the frontline of China’s efforts to enforce claims over disputed islands in the East China Sea.
Patrol ships from these agencies are churning up the seas around the islands, increasing the risk of an accidental clash with the Japanese coastguard or military, security experts say. The area around the uninhabited rocky outcrops, known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, is believed to be rich in oil and gas.
To be sure, Liu is largely on his own among senior military officers publicly calling for calm, but the volume of his comments, their timing and his close relationship to Xi point to a potential shift, experts say.
“As the new leaders try to figure out their relations with the U.S. and their foreign policy, China is being more restrained on the maritime disputes,” said Sun Yun, a researcher on Chinese foreign policy at the Washington-based Brookings Institution.
General Liu, a Communist Party princeling like Xi, said soldiers had a duty to defend the country and must fight to win but this should be a last resort, in comments reported Thursday on China’s official military website.
“Nevertheless, as a serviceman, I need to particularly make it clear to people what a war really is,” said Liu, the son of China’s late president Liu Shaoqi.
”Since we have enjoyed peace for quite a long time, many young people do not know what a war is like. It is actually very cruel and costly.
“If there is any alternative way to solve the problem, there is no need to resort to the means of extreme violence for a solution.”
In earlier remarks to journalists on the sidelines of China’s annual parliamentary session which ends on Sunday, Liu said using peaceful means to solve the island dispute was in the best interests of both countries.
“The friendship between people in China and Japan is everlasting,” he was reported as saying.
These comments from Liu, political commissar of the PLA’s General Logistics Department, are a sharp departure from the steady drumbeat of threats and warnings from a group of about 20 hawkish officers who appear to have clearance to speak out on foreign policy and military issues.
Absent from Liu’s commentaries has been the South China Sea, where China claims large swathes of ocean that could also be rich in oil and gas. The Philippines, Vietnam and other nations in Southeast Asia have challenged Beijing over those claims.
Military analysts say Liu, who was raised in the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing before his father was purged in the Cultural Revolution, is a longstanding personal friend of Xi and shares many of his views.
Xi’s father, the late senior party official and revolutionary military commander Xi Zhongxun, was also purged but became a key leader of China’s economic reforms after he was rehabilitated.
In interviews carried in official state media on Friday, Liu praised Xi, who heads the armed forces as chairman of the Central Military Commission, and said China would continue to strengthen its military under his leadership.
Liu has also led a crackdown on corruption in the armed forces after more than two decades of soaring defense outlays created opportunities for widespread graft and waste in the 2.3 million strong PLA.
In a commentary published last month in the Chinese language edition of the nationalistic Global Times newspaper, Liu said earlier wars with Japan had severely disrupted China’s development at crucial periods in its recent history.
China’s economic revival was now at a critical period and it must avoid being drawn into an “inadvertent” war, he wrote.
“The United States and Japan are afraid we are catching up to them and will do anything to contain China’s development,” he said. “We must not be fooled.”
Liu’s warnings suggest some senior military and political leaders fear a clash with the powerful Japanese military could be politically fraught for the ruling Communist Party, particularly if Washington intervened in support of its treaty ally Japan.
However, decades of strident propaganda have fostered widespread Chinese public hostility to Japan over its wartime aggression in Asia. That has made it difficult for Beijing to make concessions or compromise with Tokyo over the islands without suffering a politically damaging backlash.
Some Chinese defense analysts say Liu’s comments, aimed at a domestic audience, are intended to allow Beijing more flexibility in dealing with Tokyo while the hardline rhetoric from other, publicity seeking officers is to persuade foreigners that China is serious about its territorial claims.
Indeed, until recently, Chinese state media was issuing a daily stream of bulletins announcing ship deployments into the East China Sea, naval combat exercises, the launch of new warships and commentaries calling for resolute defense of Chinese territory.
“The unintended consequences could be just the opposite,” said Shen Dingli, a security policy expert at Shanghai’s Fudan University. “Ambitious generals are well heard domestically and Liu Yuan’s moderate views are overwhelmed.”
In a further sign Beijing wants to curb hawkish sentiment, one of China’s most outspoken military officers, retired Major General Luo Yuan, has been dropped from the government’s top advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Luo, a prolific blogger and media commentator, famously called for China and Taiwan to join forces last year and use the disputed islands as a bombing range.
Despite his regular warlike commentaries, Luo also called for the establishment of a unified coastguard to establish firm control over the paramilitary maritime agencies.
Chinese military and security experts have welcomed Beijing’s decision to combine four of the five big maritime agencies, widely known as the “five dragons”, under the command of the National Oceanic Administration.
General Liu also said the combined law enforcement agency would help avoid military conflict with Japan.
The Brussels-based International Crisis Group think tank warned in a report last year that China’s poorly coordinated and sometimes competing maritime agencies were inflaming frictions over disputed territory.
The four agencies to be combined under the single command are the China Marine Surveillance, the Coast Guard, the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command and the General Administration of Customs.
The fifth agency, the Maritime Safety Administration which is under the control of the Transport Ministry, was not mentioned in the official announcement.
“This is a good direction, but completing the task requires more,” said Sun, the Brookings Institution researcher.
Sun and other security policy experts believe Beijing needs to improve coordination between all government actors involved in maritime security including the military, the foreign ministry and lower tiers of government.
Still, the island dispute remains a potentially dangerous flashpoint.
The vice-director of China’s mapping agency, Li Pengde, told state-run television on Tuesday that Beijing planned to deploy a survey team to the islands, a move Tokyo would almost certainly resist.
Editing by Dean Yates