China's neighbours are highly sensitive just now about the country's military modernisation and its ultimate intentions, largely because of what they regard as Chinese aggression in the South China Sea. Still, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has made a habit recently of managing the flow of information – and its own media footprint – with all the finesse of a bluff old soldier.
Earlier this year, for example, the unveiling of a new stealth fighter jet in the week that US Defence Secretary Robert gates was visiting Beijing was interpreted by some as an attempt to provoke the visiting dignitary. It wasn't – it was just a crass piece of timing.
This week's decision to admit to the existence of the PLA's first aircraft carrier programme was also clumsily handled. In some ways, of course, the admission isn’t news: the world has known about China's project to refit an ex-Ukrainian carrier for a long time. What Gen. Chen Bingde, the PLA chief of staff, did by confirming the carrier's existence was to crank up the media spotlight on China's military modernisation effort by a couple more notches.
But why now? After a run of bad news about naval aggression in the exclusive economic zones first of the Philippines and then of Vietnam – not to mention the general concern about China's military plans – the PLA should be trying to keep its head down, not inviting yet more scrutiny.
No doubt conscious of its image problems, the PLA has itself been engaged in its own brand of rough-edged charm offensive. First, Chen called on Washington, where he hoped to persuade the US Congress that China was sufficiently trustworthy for the United States to be able to tear up the Taiwan Relations Act (he didn't meet with much success). And at the weekend, Gen. Liang Guanglie, China's defence minister, attended the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore with a mission to convince China's Asian neighbours that Beijing wants peaceful co-existence at least as much as they do.
‘China unswervingly adheres to a defence policy that’s defensive in nature,’ Liang told attendees of the Dialogue. ‘To judge whether a country is a threat to world peace, the key is not to look at how strong its economy or military is, but the policy it pursues.’
Liang's appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue – the first by a Chinese defence minister – was meant to smooth tensions with China's near-abroad. But it backfired. The delegations of the Philippines and Vietnam were left questioning which policy China was actually pursuing: the friendly one talked about by Liang, or the belligerent one apparently espoused by Chinese ships in the disputed areas of the South China Sea.
Into these choppy diplomatic waters sails the aircraft carrier Shi Lang, its existence long known about but only now officially acknowledged. Liang should have mentioned the carrier when assuring his audience in Singapore that China's defence policy is one of peace. By having skirted over the carrier issue just days before China publicized its existence, Liang has left himself looking guilty by omission – just as he did at the Dialogue by refusing to engage directly with the concerns put to him by the Philippines, Vietnam and others.
All this has only reinforced the impression that China's military leadership doesn't entirely buy its own rhetoric about peaceful co-existence. But whatever the PLA leaders really believe, their current message to Southeast Asia – ‘Trust us, because we say so’ – just isn't working.