Don’t Blame China for Territorial Disputes, Says Top General Visiting Pentagon

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey welcomes Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army, during a joint press conference Thursday at the Pentagon.

Ben Watson/Defense One

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Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey welcomes Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army, during a joint press conference Thursday at the Pentagon.

China is 'a peaceful, cordial and civilized lion,' argued Gen. Fang Fenghui, the People's Liberation Army’s top officer, during a Pentagon visit on Thursday. By Ben Watson

At a high-profile visit to the Pentagon, China’s senior military commander said that his country is not to blame for territorial spats with its neighbors and insisted China intends to contribute to regional peace.

China’s relations with Japan, as well as U.S.-Chinese military relations, have been tested in recent months by China’s territorial maneuvering in the contested waters and air space of the South China Sea, by the rise of cyber attacks as a new front in national security, and most recently with Vietnam over a Chinese oil rig anchored in the South China Sea.

“I don’t believe the responsibility lie on the Chinese side,” said Gen. Fang Fenghui, chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army, during a joint press conference Thursday with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey. “We do not make trouble. We do not create trouble. But we’re not afraid of trouble.”

“The global maritime environment is simply too large and complex for one nation,” Dempsey said, drawing a firm line for the United States. “And we will respond to threats.”

But mostly, it was pure pleasantries. Fang visited Washington Thursday in reciprocation for Dempsey’s visit to China in April 2013. Fang was greeted with a full military honors ceremony at the Pentagon—the first for a Chinese military leader in three years. Since President Barack Obama announced his administration’s pivot to Asia in 2011, joint chiefs from the U.S. and China have visited each other seven times. In the three years prior to the pivot, those visits occurred just once.

Last year, Dempsey’s visit was the most senior-level talks between the two nations’ militaries in almost two years. During that time, Chinese leaders framed the meeting as an opportunity to start their relationship with the U.S. anew—a move Dempsey felt obliged to point out comes with a few caveats.

“When I visited China last year it was in the afterglow of the meeting between President Xi [Jinping] and President Obama, when both leaders expressed a fundamental desire to establish a new relationship,” Dempsey said in an exclusive interview with Defense One.

“When I met with my Chinese military counterparts they said, ‘This is great, we’re going to take a blank sheet of paper and build a new relationship,’” Dempsey said. “And I replied, ‘Well, not so fast.’ It just so happens we’ve already got some writing on our paper, so it’s not blank. For starters, we’ve got historic relationships with the Republic of Korea, the Philippines, Japan and Australia. And I said, ‘Surely you wouldn’t ask us to ignore those relationships?’”

“When President Xi Jinping visited Europe not long ago, he stated that China is a lion that has awakened,” Fang told reporters Thursday. “But this is a peaceful, cordial and civilized lion. And I firmly believe that a peaceful, stable and prosperous China will contribute to the regional peace and stability.”

Despite their differences, the U.S.-China military relationship has expanded in recent years to include cooperative efforts in counter-piracy and disaster relief. 

(Read more: Chinese Military Mimics U.S., Looks to Disaster Relief to Change Perceptions)

In perhaps the strongest indication yet of the softening tension between the two nations, China in June will for the first time participate with 23 nations in the largest international maritime exercise called Rim of the Pacific, or RIMPAC, off the coast of Hawaii.

Fang’s U.S. visit began Monday in California where he was given a tour of the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan and the littoral combat ship USS Coronado. He travels next to Fort Bragg, N.C., where he will visit U.S. Army Forces Command headquarters before returning to China this weekend. 

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