General: Chinese 'Do Not Make Trouble,' but Aren't Afraid of It

A press conference by top generals of the U.S. and China was notable mostly for what they didn't say.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui speak during a joint press conference on Thursday, May 15, 2014, at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui speak during a joint press conference Thursday at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.

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The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and his Chinese counterpart kicked off a press conference Thursday discussing their respective militaries' efforts to understand the perspective of the other.

That was about the last time they agreed.

Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui, in a calm and measured tone, shirked all responsibility for Japan’s concerns in the East China Sea and for the deadly protests in Vietnam over China’s oil prospecting in the South China Sea. He blasted international media for not understanding China's perspective in all of the territorial issues that plague its neighborhood, and cautioned against  what he considers newfound feistiness from U.S. allies in the region, bolstered by President Barack Obama’s “pivot" to the Pacific

And all of it came with a warning: China will not back down.

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“We do not make trouble. We do not create trouble. But we are not afraid of trouble,” Fang said plainly. “In matters, issues that relate to sovereignty [or] territorial integrity, our attitude has been firm.”

“For the territory which has passed down by our ancestors into the hands of our generation, we cannot afford to lose an inch,” he said.

So much for diplomatic wiggle room.

Fang’s appearance before the media with U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey served as the capstone of a multiday visit to the U.S., Fang's first as China’s top general. He toured the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier and spoke at the National Defense University on Thursday, and attended both a group meeting with Pentagon leadership as well as a one-on-one with Dempsey.

The only tangible breakthrough from the visit was the creation of a new videoconference line between the U.S. and Chinese military leadership – a sort of Cold War-era "bat phone" for direct communication to avoid the sort of dangerous escalation about which both generals urged caution. Dempsey and Fang also touted China’s limited participation in the Rim of the Pacific exercise, or RIMPAC – the massive joint navy drills scheduled to take place this summer – though that had been previously announced.

Perhaps the most conspicuous news was the absence of an announcement regarding a prior-notification plan between the two militaries. Representatives have been working in recent months to hammer out protocols for how the U.S. and China can warn one another about military drills to avoid any miscommunication about their intentions. The U.S. and Russia, for example, have such a system for missile or ground troop tests.

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Observers believed the details, including how much notice each would give the other, would have been finalized in time for Dempsey and Fang to publicly announce they had signed a deal. The pair was left, instead, to discuss the issues of the day.

Dempsey spoke for significantly less time than Fang, quipping that he had more time to prepare answers to the two total questions Pentagon organizers allowed the American and Asian reporters present.

“Today, we continued our conversation on our military-to-military relationship, focused on further understanding one another and deepening cooperation between our armed forces, all while managing our differences,” he said in his opening remarks. “We also discussed the tensions in the South China Sea, and how provocative actions can lead to confrontation. These issues need to be resolved through dialogue and international law. We had a refreshingly frank and open discussion on our mutual concerns and differing opinions about the East China Sea.”

Corrected on May 16, 2014: A previous version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of Gen. Fang Fenghui.