Admiral Guan Youfei could barely wait to jump out of his uniform. As soon as the curtain came down on the Shangri-La Dialogue, a key Asia security summit held in Singapore at the weekend, the Chinese military diplomat changed into a striped polo shirt and retreated to the hotel terrace for a leisurely smoke.
He had reason to relax. Despite having the potential to place China under a harsh spotlight over recent incidents in the South China Sea, the Chinese delegation escaped largely unscathed.
Even Robert Gates, the US defence secretary, who used the same conference last year to criticise China, played down the recent incidents, choosing instead to praise the recent resumption of military dialogue between the two Pacific powers.
China was visibly pleased. Liang Guanglie – the first Chinese defence minister to attend the defence forum – grabbed the microphone from the chairman to thank everybody. His efforts to reassure China’s neighbours that Beijing was pursuing a path of peaceful development appeared to signal a change in tone.
“He said all the right things. We’re in a phase where the Chinese are in a much more co-operative and outreach type of mode,” John McCain, the US senator and former presidential candidate, told the Financial Times.
But the relatively cordial tone masked the stark gap that exists between rhetoric and reality. Just over a week ago Vietnam lambasted China for having its coast guard cut the cables of a Vietnamese oil exploration vessel in disputed waters. The Philippines protested days later that a Chinese vessel had unloaded construction materials on a contested reef.
General Phung Quang Thanh, Vietnam’s defence minister, said China needed to put its words into action. “We expect China to honour the policies they announced publicly, and we hope that these statements will be translated into realities,” he said.
The incidents have raised tensions in the region, home to rich unexplored mineral resources and vital sea-lanes for most of Asia’s oil imports from the Middle East and finished goods being sent to Europe. They have also dashed hopes that Beijing and some of its neighbours could conduct joint oil exploration, an idea that China, Vietnam and the Philippines at one point considered.
Chinese military officers and diplomats reject accusations that Beijing is being more assertive at sea, arguing that, unless overlapping territorial claims are settled, intrusions will happen from all sides.
On the initiative of Vietnam, members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have started informal talks aimed at seeking better enforcement of a decade-old agreement with China on a code of conduct in the area.
In the meantime, south-east Asian countries are looking to the US to maintain its traditional presence in the region. Voltaire Gazmin, the Philippines’ defence minister, told the FT that US navy ships were needed in the region to make it more difficult for China to misbehave. “When the cat is away, the mice will play,” he said.