China, U.S. Work on Mutual Confidence at Shangri-la Summit
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
China and the United States came closer to establishing confidence-building measures that will ease tensions.
Both U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Lt. Gen. Zhang Qisheng, the chief of the General Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), openly discussed the establishment of a hot line and other exchanges during the sixth annual Shangri-la Dialogue, held in Singapore from June 1-3.
Sponsored by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the summit took place just one week after the Pentagon released its annual report on China’s military modernization. Political pundits in Washington pounced on the report as further evidence that China’s military is a potential threat to U.S. interests and allies in the region.
However, in Singapore, Gates toned down the “China threat” concerns he had voiced the week before.
During Gates’ keynote speech, he pointed to commonality between the U.S. and China on a variety of security issues and the need for more transparency.
“The United States shares common interests with China on issues like terrorism, counterproliferation and energy security,” Gates said. “But we are concerned about the opaqueness of Beijing’s military spending and modernization programs, issues described in the annual report on the Chinese armed forces recently released by the U.S. government. But as [Marine Corps] Gen. Pete Pace, our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out, there is some difference between capacity and intent. And I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship.”
Pointing to an increase in U.S.-China military-to-military contacts, Gates said these efforts are best dramatized by Pace’s March visit to China, where he met with Gen. Liang Guanglie, chief of the PLA’s General Staff Department. Liang broached the subject of establishing a hot line, more military-to-military exchanges and joint exercises as confidence-building measures.
In a speech during the second plenary session at the summit, Zhang said technical issues regarding the establishment of a hot line between Beijing and Washington had been worked out and the details would be finalized in September, when he will visit Washington for the ninth annual Sino-U.S. defense talks.
Singapore Defense Minister Teo Chee Hean said the Chinese moves are a positive sign for peace in the region.
“It’s an indication of two things,” he said. “China is now more open and prepared to discuss its security and defense issues and to receive views and feedback on that. We think that’s a positive move. And secondly, it’s an indicator that the Shangri-la dialogue itself is a useful platform for such discussions to take place.”
However, there were objections in Beijing over the establishment of ballistic missile defenses (BMD) by Japan and the United States. Ignoring the North Korean ballistic missile threat during his speech, Zhang said BMD facilities in Japan would destabilize Asia.
Zhang also pointed to secessionist forces in Taiwan as potential flashpoints for military conflict.
“Some people in Taiwan are still dreaming about secession, so the Chinese military must be prepared to cope with this kind of threat,” Zhang said. “If anything happens, China’s military must be prepared to respond.”
During a June 2 news conference, Gates referred to China’s military twice regarding issues of transparency and creating a dialogue similar to U.S.-Soviet Union dialogues on arms control during the Cold. War.
“That kind of dialogue, whether or not it involves specific proposals for arms control or anything else, I think is immensely valuable, and I think it’s one of the great assets of the developing military-to-military dialogue between the United States and the People’s Republic,” he said.
Dennis Blair, a retired U.S. Navy admiral and former head of Pacific Command, believes hot lines have limits that do not always guarantee peace.
“No hot line goes from commander to commander,” he said. “The idea that it is a panacea that you can communicate on is wrong. What you have to do is have a level of understanding that’s built up on both sides by discussing these issues. You have some idea of what kind of person is on the other side of this phone, what are they likely to do. So when you are both trying to reach a solution to a crisis, you don’t send bad signals and misread intentions.”
When it comes to a potential conflict between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan, Blair said, “the primary danger is that we get into a conflict that no side intended, and we get driven by dynamics of the crisis and conflict, and that we haven’t thought it through and talked with each other enough that we can keep that from happening.
“What I’ve told the Chinese directly is that if your country goes to war with our country, it better be because you meant to, not because you thought we would back down or you thought you could bluff us or you thought we were bluffing,” Blair said.