BEIJING: A senior Chinese military officer told Channel NewsAsia in a rare exclusive interview that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) currently has no contact with their North Korean counterparts.
Senior Colonel Zhou Bo from China’s Ministry of National Defence said: “In the past we did, we had a lot of contact and exchanges. I think this reflects a kind of change in our relationship for the reasons known to all.”
His comments came as North Korea increased the frequency of its missile tests over the past year, which have been condemned by the United Nations.
The interview was recorded prior to Pyongyang’s latest missile launch on Tuesday, where it reportedly successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).
In a wide-ranging interview with Conversation With’s Lin Xueling, Senior Colonel Zhou, who is director of the ministry’s Centre for International Security Cooperation, also addressed Southeast Asian countries’ concerns about China’s perceived growing assertiveness in the South China Sea.
“That is what I said since China's rise. We are not using force against anybody,” said Senior Colonel Zhou, who has served in the PLA for 38 years.
“When people warn China against use of force, I find it ridiculous because that is not what we are doing, and we have no intention to do that in the future,” he added.
Watch: Concerns about military ambitions (3:54)
China lays claim to over 80 per cent of the South China Sea, in competition with the claims of other smaller Southeast Asian states including Brunei, Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.
The US has been sailing in the disputed areas as part of what it claims are international rights to freedom of navigation.
This is the first time Senior Colonel Zhou Bo has done a one-on-one interview with international media. A condensed transcript of the interview follows.
Senior Colonel, a recent PEW poll said 91 per cent of Filipinos, and 83 per cent of Vietnamese were concerned that the territorial dispute in South China Sea could lead to some form of military conflict. What do you say to Southeast Asians worried about China's moves?
To a certain extent, I understand their concerns, because the concerns of small countries are natural, but I have heard something from Southeast Asia - people say that when two elephants fight, the grass suffers, but when two elephants make love, the grass also suffers. That means that their concerns are always there.
But to judge the PLA future activities, the best reference is history. That is what I said since China's reform. We are not using force against anybody.
Then it puzzles me Senior Colonel, that the Minister of Defence for the Philippines recently said that China would be giving US$500 in aid, and that aid can be used for military equipment. Why give that kind of aid? In fact the Minister of Defence in Thailand also mentioned tanks and submarines that China would be providing. Is China helping to militarise Southeast Asia?
No I don't think so, on the contrary, I think China is helping them to meet their requests. For example, if all these countries believe China is a threat, how can you buy your weapons from your enemy, how can your enemy provide you weapons? That means these countries have not taken China as a real threat.
For example, when Malaysia’s Prime Minister visited China, he asked China to sell Malaysia destroyers. I think we are talking about that. And it's a fact that we give Filipino military assistance at their request. It's because they have domestic unrest and they need such weapons, and we are generous enough to provide them assistance to do whatever they want to do.
That means one would not take them as a threat, and they would not take China as a threat. I think this is exactly the fact that China is trying to help them.
ON NORTH KOREA
What sort of relations does the Chinese military have with its North Korean counterparts? Are you in regular contact with them?
No not at all. We have zero contact with them right now.
Why is that the case when China - at least some officials - refer to North Korea as neighbours, sometimes even as a good neighbour? So you have no contact with the military of a close neighbour?
No, currently we do not have any contact or ties with the DPRK militarily. In the past we did, we had a lot of contact and exchanges. I think this reflect a kind of change in our relationship for the reasons known to all.
China and DPRK are definitely neighbors, and we fought a war on Korean soil a long, long time ago. But what I would say is China is right now united with the international community to seriously honour UN resolutions, and we hope we eventually may find a solution to these problems.
Watch: An excerpt (1:30)
What about some analysts who argue that what we see in North Korea and South Korea is in fact interference by very large countries? In other words, by China and the US, and we are seeing a proxy kind of playing out of conflict?
I don't think so, because certainly, DPRK wants to talk to the US directly. So China is actually helping them talk to each other. If you look at the history of the Six Party Talks, China is always the host, from 2003 to 2007. China tries its best to be a good host, to serve them good tea, to let them sit together, to talk, but it hasn't worked very much.
But Senior Colonel, surely China has much more influence with the military to persuade, or perhaps even more?
China is working on this, I believe China has always made its position clear to DPRK, that it's in its own interests to pursue denuclearisation for the stability of the Korean peninsula. But the situation right now seems to be too chaotic, because of so many issues. Because of the THAAD system…
And the nuclear missile launches by the DPRK.
ON CHINA’S GLOBAL INTERESTS
Would (China) consider military bases along the lines that the US has, for example, in Qatar?
I don't think so. Because I fundamentally believe that there is a different road for Chinese forces overseas. If I compare with that of the US, China does not have such a global ambition. So why would the Chinese military have bases one after another?
So China won't unilaterally go out with the PLA to protect Chinese economic interests in other parts of the world?
I think we can only have international cooperation to justify PLA's presence overseas. You cannot justify against all these problems unilaterally or single-handedly. Also, the military solution is one of the options, not the only option.
If the US is on the retreat here in Asia, would China fill that space?
That is kind of the traditional concept - that the international world would not allow anarchy, because it’s just like air - it would flow to wherever it is vacant. But first, I don't believe the US would leave Asia.
I never understand why the US would consider that China wants to drive them out of the Western Pacific. Because logically, the US is indeed an Asia-Pacific country, because it is facing the Pacific Ocean.
China is getting stronger, that is for sure. But if you look at China's relationship with the US, you can hardly find a single chance that China is offensive. China is defensive. So we would not be aggressive towards them, and we would not fill in the so-called vacuum when they leave, because they won't leave.
So China as the large elephant in Asia would not be stomping on the grass?
I think Asia is big enough, the Pacific ocean is big enough, China is not the only elephant and China would be very careful not to walk to damage any grass.
Watch the full episode of Conversation With here.