BEIJING — Defense Secretary William Cohen on Thursday accused China's state-controlled media of presenting a dangerously distorted view of U.S. foreign policy goals, but in an unscripted moment, he agreed with a Chinese woman's complaint that U.S. news media sometimes do the same to China.
In a speech to the National Defense University, a school for officers of the People's Liberation Army, Cohen said China "sometimes presents the United States in a way that is not only unhelpful but is untrue."
"The characterization of the United States being a hegemon, a country determined to dominate the world and to contain and dominate China, is simply untrue," he said. "We see constant references in the Chinese media" to the United States that amount to "hyperbole or criticism or negativity."
Later Cohen held a series of meetings with top Chinese leaders, including a 90-minute session with President Jiang Zemin in which he said Jiang complained about Israel's decision to cancel its planned sale to China of an advance radar warning and control aircraft, called PHALCON. The Clinton administration pressed Israel to drop the sale, arguing that it offered China too much capability.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhu Bangzao told a news briefing: "No other country has the right to interfere in bilateral cooperation that China has with other governments. In our view, agreements reached between China and other governments should be followed."
In a portion of his prepared remarks for the National Defense University speech, which he dropped in the delivery, Cohen referred to a "confrontational rhetoric" by China that assigns hostile motives to American foreign policy goals. He said this presents a "danger that simple misunderstandings will lead to serious miscalculations."
Cohen seemed to be referring to China's frequent assertion that the United States, by stationing troops in Asia, allying itself with Japan and providing arms to Taiwan, seeks to stifle China and dominate Asia.
China also views U.S. development of a national missile defense as another means of dominating China — a claim Cohen rebutted by saying the system would "not be designed to address China's missile capability."
On that point, China's chief arms negotiator, Sha Zukang, repeated Thursday that China will retaliate if such a system is deployed.
"We don't have the wish to have a race," Sha told reporters. "We don't have the capability to race with anyone." However, he added, "China will certainly do something to protect its security. China will not sit on its hands doing nothing while seeing its security seriously damaged."
In a question-and-answer session following his speech, Cohen — and perhaps many of the Chinese officers in the audience — were taken by surprise when a woman seated near Cohen's wife, Janet, stood and posed a lengthy question that drew a vigorous and seemingly spontaneous burst of applause.
The woman, who described herself as the spouse of an army official, ignored a uniformed Chinese officer's signal for her to sit down. She noted Cohen's criticisms of China's media. "I think the same problem occurs in the U.S. media," she said through an interpreter, citing specifically U.S. media reporting on human rights in China. Her comments seemed to catch Cohen off guard.
"I guess I should have cut the questions before you asked your question," Cohen said jokingly.
"We have abuses — not abuses — we have a free media in the United States," Cohen said, adding that "There are some in our media that characterize or mischaracterize China." He said these distortions "too often have caused tensions between our two countries."
Cohen's speech focused on the prospects for improved U.S.-China relations and sought to dispel the notion held by China's leaders that the United States is trying to "contain" China in the way it approached the former Soviet Union in a cold war of military, economic and political competition.
He said those in the United States who advocate a containment policy toward China are pursuing "folly and futility."
He also made these points:
The U.S. security alliance with Japan is designed to strengthen stability in Asia, not undermine Chinese interests. "It is a defensive alliance that does not isolate or threaten any nation in the region."
The recent summit meeting between the leaders of North and South Korea was a promising sign. "There are grounds for hope that the 50-year confrontation in Korea may be ended if the promise of the summit is realized."