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US vision of China as strategic rival driven by anxiety and agony – Chinese military official

If trade tensions weren’t enough, China’s military upgrade is causing major concerns in Washington. So, what are Beijing’s ambitions in the Indo-Pacific and across the world? We ask Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, director of security cooperation in the Office for International Military Cooperation of China's National Defense Ministry.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, welcome to the show. It's really great to have you with us. So, Colonel, according to Zhang Yesui,the official spokesperson for the National People's Congress, China's growing military spending is necessary to ensure the country's security. Does this mean that China is facing security threats today? And if so, who or which country constitutes such a threat? 

Zhou Bo: Thank you, Sophie. I think he's right. China won't take any country as a threat. But China does have a threat, because China is still a country that is not reunified. And China does have a land border dispute with one, two countries, and China also has maritime disputes with some countries. Besides, since the world has changed, as a whole world is faced with what we call “non-traditional threats”, which is a common threat to all people. Therefore, we have to spend more money on our military spending. But having said that, traditionally speaking, we would cut the money into three portions: one for personnel, one for equipment and one for training. Now, because of China's ever growing overseas interest and its increasing international responsibility, we'll have the new missions. Therefore, we have to have more expenditure. Having said that, we still would conclude that logically China's rise has been so peaceful. So in the last 40 years China's rise has been peaceful. This is recognised by the world. And we have managed our best to keep our military expenditure at a low level which is always slightly lower than 1.5 percent. 

SS: So you have mentioned expenditure, and it's true that worldwide defence spending is growing. China is second only to the United States, and you spend more and more money every year. So, if I may, I would like to ask you a question in a more narrow sense. Would you say that the arms race is deterrent against an all-out conflict with another major power? 

ZB: I hope, not. First of all, after the “Cold War” we do not have major threats around the world. For example, more than 20 navies were combating pirates in the Gulf of Aden. That shows actually there was no major threat from another point of view. But the same time we do have the same inconvenient situation or difficult time when, for example, the United States has taken China and Russia as the primary competitors, as this was released in two major documents: one is the Security Strategy, and the other one is the Defence Strategy. Therefore, I believe, we have entered a new situation, when people feel more nervous about this uncomfortable situation. 

SS: So the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation is going to hold major anti-terrorism drills this year. Would that be fair to say that these drills helped to create a Russian-Chinese military alliance? 

ZB: I don't think so. I'm happy you mentioned the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Actually, in the charter of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation it is made quite clear that this kind of cooperation is not directed against any third parties. China and Russia do enjoy very good relationship, which officially is described as a comprehensive strategic partnership of coordination. And this is a well reflected in either the exercises within Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or in the bilateral exercises: over years we have exercises expanding either in terms of subjects or in terms of scope. We found it in the Mediterranean, in the Baltic Sea, in the South China Sea and in the sea of Japan, which really reflects the good relationship between the two countries. 

SS: So one of the latest Pentagon reports refers to China's military forces as the “China's military threat”. Does Beijing perceive this report as a provocation? What is the United States trying to achieve here? 

ZB: Well, that is a good question, Sophie, because we are wondering why the U.S. would take China as, first, a revisionist country and then as a primary competitor. If you look at the China’s policy we would conclude logically that China’s policy has been fairly consistent either towards the United States or toward the rest of the world. I think this question is good but it should be a good question for America to answer, because my question is: the United States don’t seem to be as confident as before, because of the relative decline in the last decades. Because by the end of the Second World War American GDP share in the world was 50 percent. Nowadays it is only 15 percent, and it will further reduce. Therefore, the United States’ taking China as a strategic competitor is not a reorientation, but, I believe, it's a loss of direction driven by anxiety and agony. This should not be the case, because China is always asking for relationship of non-confrontation and a low conflict. My best hope for this relationship however sophisticated is that this is a manageable relationship. Let's look at the South China Sea where the U.S. Navy would conduct a so-called FON operation regularly. And yes, the Chinese military and U.S. militaries do not want conflicts. But the question is: could all the tactical arrangements like the rule or behaviour during campaigns conducted on the sea and in theair be able to prevent accidents from happening again. 

SS: It's good that you mention the South China Sea, because starting from 2014 China has been building artificial islands in the South China Sea, and according to your Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying, China has the right to deploy military bases on these islands over security concerns. United States and other regional powers are accusing China of militarising South China Sea. Is this criticism justified and why are you doing this? 

ZB: First of all, it is not justifiable at all because we do not consider them to be artificial islands and we do not consider what we are doing as a kind of militarisation. On the other hand, the regularised FON operation in the South China Sea and the violation of Americans’ own positions that they would not take sides and that they do not have a position on the sovereignty of South China Sea are actually a kind of militarisation. China is not the first country to claim land in the South China Sea and China is not the first country to deploy weapons on these islands. It is for necessary defence. This is our land and we are going to defend it. 

SS: So China's military has been on high alert when two U.S. missile destroyer sailed near China's artificial islands in the South China Sea. United States say the operation was just a freedom of navigation patrol but Beijing sees it as violation of China's sovereignty and stability in the region. Why is that? What are your thoughts? 

ZB: China and the United States certainly have different opinions regarding this kind of operations. The U.S. believe that they are challenging China's so-called excessive claims in the South China Sea, while China believes that China is defending its sovereign rights. So, we are not talking about the same thing in different lights. I personally has headed the Chinese delegations at negotiation with the American counterparts on this very important issue. What I can say is that this very core concept of the UN conventional law of the sea about the freedom of navigation - both China and the United States agree to it. But they disagree as to what that means, because China as early as in 1998 has actually issued a domestic law authorising foreign ships with freedom of navigation and overflight in Chinese waters, so long as they are in line with China's national law and international law. So we still think about this. Over 20 years ago China actually has put this very important concept in China's domestic law. So we are not against the freedom of navigation. We are against the abuse of freedom of navigation for other purposes. 

SS: Another important topic is that the U.S. have pulled out of the INF deal, and President Trump offered to replace it with another agreement that would include China and other countries too. China's Foreign Ministry spokesman once again has already excluded any possibility of China being part of an extended version of INF. But if we talk about a brand new arms control deal, not INF, something new, would China join in? If yes then on what conditions? 

ZB: The first question is what kind of a new arms control treaty? Because people have been talking about it for a while but nobody has made it very clear as to what kind of a treaty it will be. My first answer is a question: why would the U.S. pull-out from INF treaty at all? Because this definitely angers the European countries. It worries American allies in the Asia-Pacific. And the U.S. is the strongest power in the world. And the U.S. is the only country that has used nuclear weapons in the history. So, the impression is that the U.S. look like a victim. But how can the U.S. be a victim being the strongest country with the largest nuclear arsenal? As far as the Chinese attitude is concerned, China has made it clear that if China won’t join any trilateral negotiation over nuclear disarmament. This is for good reason because our nuclear weapons cannot be compared to that of the U.S. or Russia in terms of quality or quantity. And we are the first country and the only country to declare no first use of nuclear weapons or use of nuclear weapon against a nuclear free countries or region. So, therefore, we do not believe that we should have such a role in such a hypothetical scenario. 

SS: Now, Colonel, China is believed to hold the keys to denuclearisation of North Korea. Is it so? And if yes, what concrete steps is China taking to push North Korea's denuclearisation forward? 

ZB: I don't think China holds the key to denuclearisation in the Korean Peninsula. I believe that it is the U.S. and the DPRK have the key, because everybody knows that China has made the unremitting efforts towards denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula. China is the country that has actually proposed the six-party talks. And China always chaired the six-party talks. And China actually has put forward, I believe, a good proposal of suspension for suspension or freeze for freeze. If you look at the current situation or the fact that Donald Trump actually has talked to Kim Jong Un bilaterally, don't you believe that this is very much a realisation of China's proposal? Because China proposed that once the United States suspend its exercises, then DPRK might be willing to have a nuclear moratorium. And this happened. So we also encourage them to talk bilaterally. And this has happened. So China does have a great role in the denuclearisation. But China would also continue its efforts in this regard. But China doesn't have such a key in China's hand. 

SS: So, the general thinking is that Kim Jong Un needs nuclear weapons for insurance against the regime change. Is China ready to guarantee North Korea's international security? 

ZB: China cannot guarantee North Korea its security. I believe, the security of North Korea is in the hands of the people of the DPRK, because it is in their own interest to denuclearise, to have a secure and a safe Korean peninsula, because having all these nuclear weapons may be useful militarily, but how about economic development? And how about its threats to the whole region including the neighbouring countries? So, nuclear weapons nowadays are not that really useful. This is my opinion. So, they should not take hold of nuclear weapons. Rather they should continue their bilateral talks with the United States to seek a final solution. As far as solutions concerned, China has a proposal to start from something easy and simple and then consolidate the results at every stage and eventually, hopefully they can find a solution. 

SS: I want to talk about another neighbour of yours. China and South Korea are at loggerheads over the THAAD anti-ballistic missile system, which China sees as a threat to the original security balance. Now Beijing has many times asked Seoul to remove the system, but was refused. Can this lead to a wider rift between South Korea and China? 

ZB: We don't believe the THAAD system should be deployed at all, because, first of all, it is not useful. Secondly, it is harmful to the interests of other countries. Let me talk about the first point. THAAD system is not useful because the Korean peninsula is just about 1100 kilometres in terms of lands. And the so-called threat from DPRK to the south actually comes from the fire, the shower of cannons, because DPRK has threatened again to turn Seoul, for example, into a sea of fire. So, no missile defence system can shoot off the shower of conventional weapons shells. So, that is why we believe such kind of a system with only two batteries would not be useful. And secondly, then if it is not useful, why would you deploy it? Do you have some other purposes? Do you want to look deep into other countries territory? To find out their military activities? Do you want to intercept the missiles launched by other countries during test or even in a real situation? So we do not buy this seriously that THAAD system is for self-defence. 

SS: So, the Chinese fleet is getting more active in counter piracy operations near the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean demonstrating their capabilities of a potential blue water navy. Now U.S. blue water navy is one of key pillars of America's power projection across the globe. Is China planning to eventually develop the same capacity? 

ZB: Absolutely yes, because we are not too shy to talk about our ambition to turn Chinese navy into a blue water navy. Actually we have made it clear that by mid-century PLA will be developed hopefully into a world-class military. That, of course, would include the first-class Chinese navy. Actually, I was thinking: maybe a hundred years ago, during the Ming dynasty, China did have a blue water navy. So this is the second time that we are building ourselves into a blue water navy, and the counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden is certainly a big booster in that regard, because ever since then we have been sending flotillas to the Gulf of Aden. We make sure that each time we always have a three to four ships compared with other countries for a single country to send a three or four ships that it definitely is a largest task force, compare either to CMF, or EU’s “Atlanta” or “Ocean Shield” of NATO. But we, like Russia, are independent deployers in the Gulf of Aden. 

SS: China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs has more than once referred to Taiwan as one of the most sensitive issues in the bilateral China - United States relations. Now the Chinese government has protested against the US selling weapons to the island of Taiwan on multiple occasions. What is the ultimate goal the United States is pursuing by continuing to make passes at Taiwan? What's your take? 

ZB: That's certainly a good question, because China’s repeated protest of arms sales by the United States to Taiwan has always fallen on the deaf ears. But the point is: what is the real use of the arms sale to Taiwan? The Mainland China is becoming stronger and stronger. No matter how many weapons to Taiwan would they buy, that would not be useful in the worst-case scenario. I believe, the Taiwanese authority is not really buying weapons. They're trying to buy insurance. Insurance that could be filled with American blood, insurance that could not really guarantee their safety. So, what is the safety of the Taiwanese people? Their safety and their security come from the good relationship with Mainland China. That is where the security lie, and even economically they depend so heavily on Mainland China. We have extended the goodwill time and again, if you compare the previous Taiwanese authority and the current authority you would find the difference. So their security and well-being lie in the good relationship across the street, it lies in the trust of Mainland China toward Taiwan. 

SS: Now at the Moscow Conference on International Security Minister Wei said that “China is strongly against the Taiwan Travel Act that the United States adopted. It's a blatant interference in China's domestic affairs that undermines the peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. What could potentially lead to an open confrontation in the Taiwan Strait? 

ZB: The situation across the strait is not so favourable, and indeed in the Capitol Hill a number of bills were passed by the Congress. But we have also taken notice that although some bills were ratified by American President, they are not necessarily implemented to date. Taiwan issue is a core issue over China's national interest. And we made it very clear and we are very much resolute to safeguard our core interest, because the Mainland China and especially the capability of PLA is growing and it is known to all.We are very much firm on this issue, and I think it's good for the United States to consider what is a pro and what is a con. Is it important for them to make use of Taiwan against the Mainland China? China is becoming more and more important. It's such a huge influential power in the world. So what is the purpose of the U.S. doing this to China? 

SS: China and Pakistan - another big topic. There are traditionally in very good relations, and Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission General Zhang Youxia said that Pakistan-China military relations are an important pillar of strategic ties. Does it mean that China is on Pakistan's side when it comes to tensions between India and Pakistan? Like the recent ones? 

ZB: No I don't think so. China, as you rightly said, is a very good friend of Pakistan and a vice versa. But China doesn't have to choose side between India and Pakistan. I'll give you the latest example. China accepted both India and Pakistan in the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with the endorsement of other member countries. And China's relationship with India, despite the land border issue, is actually very good, because we even have a joint exercises against terrorism, and during holidays the soldiers across the border could even share beer or cigarettes. So we do not believe this is the black and white picture. So we sincerely hope both Pakistan and India could coexist. They were once one country. Now they should be brothers. 

SS: Colonel, it's been such a pleasure talking to you. Thank you very much for this insightful interview. We wish you all the best of luck. We're talking to Senior Colonel Zhou Bo, Director of Security Cooperation for the Military Office of China's National Defence Ministry, discussing China's increasing military strength and its implications for the world.

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