Today Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi, speaking with unusual bluntness in front of 300 leading diplomats – including senior US officials – here in Munich publicly stated that China is getting stronger on the international stage. He said the US was violating international law by a proposed arms sale to Taiwan, offered that China’s TV and radio news service contains “more solid” and reliable news than Western media, and that China is not ready to address sanctions on Iran’s nuclear program, stating instead that the Islamic Republic “has not totally closed the door on the IAEA.”
Transatlantic – meet the Pacific.
Foreign Minister Yang is the first Chinese official to speak at the annual Munich Security Conference, the premier transatlantic security meeting, in its 46 year history. He turned heads in the group at a time when the People’s Republic and the US have come to loggerheads over Taiwan arms sales, Internet freedom, currency rates, and climate policy coming out of the Copenhagen meeting in December.
“I haven’t heard a high-ranking Chinese official say, ‘Yes, we are strong,’ in a public setting before,” said a senior German diplomat. “It was a very assertive message, different, and it means we will soon see a different Chinese policy.”
Mr. Yang, a former ambassador to the US and highly respected, gave a somewhat conventional speech – though in a strong voice. He affirmed that China is both a developed and a developing country, that it seeks “win-win solutions,” and that it is preparing for greater “shared responsibilities” on the world stage – and that it played a transformative role in helping avert a global financial crisis in the past year.
Yet during three probing follow-up questions, Yang mopped his brow repeatedly in answering on Taiwan, cyberspace, and China’s position on Iran’s nuclear program, which he earlier admitted was “at a crucial stage.”
“Does China feel stronger? Yes,” he said as questions opened.
Regarding a proposed US $6.4 billion package of arms for Taiwan introduced in recent weeks by the Obama administration, and which China has for the first time threatened retaliatory sanctions on US firms that supply arms – Yang called it a “violation of the code of conduct among nations” by the US, said China has “every reason to feel indignant about this thing,” and added that Beijing has a “sovereign right to do what is necessary” in response.
He went on to say China is “totally against hacking attacks…I don’t know how this Google thing has popped up” – in response to a question about cyberspace. At a time when the American search engine giant has said it may leave China after repeated hacks on human rights workers, and British intelligence has reported official Chinese espionage against business travelers, Yang said that “China is a victim” of hacking.
The cyberspace answers were prefaced with polemics on the virtues of Chinese news gathering. The Chinese people have better news than members of the western public, and “freedom of speech is what we advocate,” Yang said, adding that with 15 million Chinese traveling abroad every year, “the Chinese people are well informed." Yang also said that while foreign companies were free to enter China, and that many had done well there, they still must submit to Chinese laws, “and what is in the best interest of China.”
China’s presence at the 48-hour Munich conference, hosted by German diplomat Wolfgang Ischinger, and that will include US National Security Advisor James Jones, follows a robust Chinese presence at the annual Davos conference in Switzerland, where China rented one of the most splendid villas – used in the past by Microsoft.
Gary Smith, director of the American Academy in Berlin, said that Yuan’s assertive speech did not contain the kind of direct dynamite that Vladimir Putin’s address here did in 2007, when Russia's then-president affirmed that Russia would taking a newly assertive role on the world stage. But Yuan’s comments nonetheless would be felt strongly here, Smith said: “Europeans have been terrified by this kind of moment…they’ve been obsessed by the rise of China and India.
“[Yuan’s remarks] tells this group that the hard work of Atlantic consensus on global issues can be negligible if the Chinese don’t agree to play ball.”