China Watchers See Few Gains for Gates in Beijing
By WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — During U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ trip earlier this month to Beijing, China sent its first probe to the moon, complained about Taiwan’s moves to de jure independence, and ignored complaints about arms sales to Iran.
Some China watchers said Gates appeared to have gotten little, except for a promise to use a Beijing-Washington military hot line, as agreed at a June Singapore meeting.
“It seems that Gates’ trip was a failure,” said Arthur Ding, a cross-strait military affairs expert at the National Chengchi University’s Institute of International Relations in Taiwan. “It seems that China has promised nothing, because even on the hot line issue, no specific timetable has been promised by China.”
Ding said the Middle East chaos had distracted U.S. officials, “enabling China more room for leveraging.”
But Larry Wortzel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said he believes any dialogue is a positive development.
“Gates had a good relationship with the Chinese government” when he was director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Wortzel said. “I expect that to carry over.
“It seems to me that the PRC [People’s Republic of China] leadership is leaving open room for improvement in the defense contacts. I applaud that on both sides,” he added. “I think both sides want to reduce the level of mistrust, but neither side wants to give much information away. I think these contacts are a positive development.”
Gates made no mention in news conferences or news releases of China’s growing nuclear arsenal, which will soon include the mobile Dong Feng 31A, China’s first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of striking Washington. China also is fielding new Jin-class nuclear-powered submarines armed with Julang-2 ballistic missiles capable of striking most of the United States.
Gates appeared more concerned with a nuclear showdown with Iran.
“We discussed the importance of Iran not having nuclear weapons and of there not being a proliferation problem with respect to Iran,” Gates said at a Nov. 5 joint news conference in Beijing with Cao Gangchuan, China’s defense minister.
“We agreed that it is important to pursue efforts to persuade the Iranian government to change their behavior and their policies peacefully, through diplomatic means,” Gates added. “I would say [that] I said the importance of continuing an increased economic pressure as a way of persuading the Iranian government to make different choices.”
Yet Beijing, which gets about 12 percent of its oil from Iran, appears unlikely to do much about it. Cao complained at the same conference about Taiwan and China’s “friendly neighbor” Pakistan.
Critics suggest that Cao and Gates were talking past each other, instead of engaging each other.
“Gates says he wants answers on why Chinese-made weapons — from small arms to anti-aircraft missiles to explosively formed penetrators — which the Chinese admit shipping to Iran, are turning up in disturbing volumes in Iraq and Afghanistan,” said John Tkacik, a senior research fellow in Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
“Gates is pretending that he believes the Chinese government doesn’t know what’s going on, or more disturbing, can do nothing about it,” Tkacik said. “But his intelligence analysts believe that these arms transfers are part of China’s national policy, and that the Chinese leadership is perfectly happy that they are being transferred to Iraqi and Taliban insurgents. He wants to know why the Chinese aren’t more anxiety-ridden by Iran’s moves to make a nuclear weapon.”
Tkacik said he believes that China’s support for insurgents in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as intimate military-to-military relations with Iran, keeps the United States busy in the Middle East and less focused on Asia. This allows Beijing to expand its military influence in the region without worrying about U.S. meddling.
“Do you think they’d actually tell you if they had determined that a nuclear Iran complicates American strategic planning? Well, Beijing’s top U.S. analyst, Dr. Wang Jisi, said in 2004 ‘that it is beneficial for our international environment to have the United States militarily and diplomatically deeply sunk in the Mideast to the extent that it can hardly extricate itself,’” Tkacik said.
The Heritage Foundation analyst derided U.S. officials’ push for transparency.
“Gates’ visit is a pristine example of what’s wrong with Washington’s China policy: We demand ‘transparency’ from China’s military strategists while the nature and scope of China’s military modernization makes blindingly clear what the goals are,” he said.
Tkacik cited China’s recent anti-satellite test and its growing nuclear arsenal.
“The PLA [People’s Liberation Army] is building anti-satellite weapons, a huge submarine fleet of both super-quiet diesel/electrics and nuclear attack subs and boomers, rebuilding its nuclear arsenal, producing new classes of ICBMs, fielding new ground armor, launching new classes of missile destroyers and giving every indication they would like a large aircraft carrier fleet, and we say, ‘Gee, you can’t really be interested in regional hegemony … so, what do you need all this for? Please be more transparent!’” he said.
“Well, the fact is, they do seek regional hegemony. Everyone else in Asia understands this, so why can’t the Americans?”
For good measure, Tkacik noted that even the hot line isn’t necessarily a success.
“During the April 2001 Hainan air collision [of a U.S. Navy electronic eavesdropping plane and a Chinese fighter jet], the Chinese refused to answer the phone,” he said. “During the May 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing, they refused to pick up the phone — all despite the fact that in July 1998, [U.S. President Bill] Clinton and [Chinese President] Jiang Zemin presided over the Military-Maritime Consultative Arrangement, which was supposed to institutionalize crisis dialogue.”