HONG KONG – 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.