U.S. PACOM Disappointed With Beijing
BY WENDELL MINNICK
TAIPEI — The number and quality of interactions between the U.S. and Chinese militaries fell short in 2007, the commander of U.S. Pacific forces told lawmakers.
“Progress was decidedly uneven” in a realm that is vital to maintain stability in the Taiwan Strait and reassure regional nations, Adm. Timothy Keating told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on March 11. “We saw positive outcomes from senior-level visits, but also experienced the perplexing cancellation of some routine activities.” Successes include several high-level visits to China that afforded access to military “platforms and facilities not visited before,” said Keating, the head of U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM).
But he saw little change in China’s “willingness to conduct port visits, simple exercises at sea, midlevel officer exchanges, or pragmatic interaction like the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement [MMCA] talks,” which Keating said he views as essential to reducing deadly miscalculations.
When Keating met reporters in Beijing on Jan. 15, he called for greater transparency to build trust. “That reduces the potential for misunderstanding,” he said at the time. “Misunderstanding can lead to conflict or crisis, and that is very much not in our interest.” Citing China’s double-digit growth in defense spending, including on weapons that threaten Taiwan and U.S. forces, the “growing PLA military capability remains a concern, and our understanding of PLA intentions is limited,” Keating said.
He said Taiwan’s military has improved its self-defense capabilities considerably, but noted that PACOM has advised Taiwan’s military to improve joint training, critical infrastructure protection and capability. A former U.S. defense official said it was easy to be frustrated with the PLA leadership, but said that Chinese and U.S. officials judge improvement differently. Where Beijing sees a symbolic advance, Washington may see the absence of substantive improvement.
“Americans judge a successful mil-mil program by the number of areas in which we can actually operate together on common missions. Chinese judge it by the levels of meetings held, the weapon systems shown visitors, and the number of times they are able to get their message across on Taiwan,” he said.
“To judge progress, you have to step back from the immediate and look at longer-term trends. By this standard, we have come a very large distance from, say, 1995.” The former official said U.S. knowledge of and interaction with less-senior Chinese military leaders at the lower levels has improved. Despite Keating’s disappointment, he said, “I think overall the trend is still in the right direction.” Eric McVadon, a retired rear admiral who directs Asia-Pacific studies at the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, believes there have been “some favorable developments in the military relationship despite complaints and setbacks, with the hot line a recent example.” McVadon said the U.S.-PRC relationship profits from mutual interests in the Six-Party Talks, trade and combating terrorism.
Bernard “Bud” Cole, author of “The Great Wall at Sea,” believes Keating’s remarks were part of a “campaign to try to get Beijing to be more open about the purposes of its military modernization. I think the Chinese understand exactly what Keating, and other U.S. folks, are doing but are choosing not to respond.” China has a history of ignoring U.S. offers to improve military-to-military relations. The worst examples are China’s failure to respond to Washington’s call for dialogue after the 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, and the 2001 incident in which a U.S. Navy EP-3 electronic surveillance plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea.
“The PLA leadership is wary or worse in its view of the U.S. military,” McVadon said.
China views the United States as the aggressor, bent on containing China’s growth, inhibiting unification with Taiwan, interfering with China’s internal affairs and killing its citizens. The PLA still suffers from sanctions imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, has not forgotten Washington’s decision to send two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier battle groups to the Taiwan Strait in 1996, the accidental bombing in Belgrade in 1999, the collision of the EP-3 with the F-8 fighter in 2001, and U.S. military support for Taiwan and Japan.
“Many PLA leaders, like many U.S. military leaders, see the other side as a potential enemy and do not accept the argument that engagement is a way to reduce the risks rather than a means to pry, spy and connive,” McVadon said.
Cole said, “They will never, in my opinion, come up to our standards in transparency/willingness to exchange information.” Sources say part of the reason is the authoritarian rule of the Chinese Communist Party, a tradition of secrecy and a history of xenophobia.
However, not all is lost. “We do not agree on everything, but that does not mean we disagree on everything,” McVadon said.
“That translates into disagreeing on Taiwan, among other things. However, we are likely soon to see that situation ease further,” he said. “But whether or not the optimism is well-founded, we are obligated to be patient, imaginative and diligent in working on the military relationship. After all, the U.S.-PRC relationship is arguably the most important — not the best, but the most important — bilateral relationship in the world today.” Keating emphasized during the hearing that efforts “will continue to pursue military-to-military activity with the PLA, with the clear purpose to reduce chances of miscalculation, increase understanding and create opportunities for cooperation. We seek, in the long term, a mature relationship with the PLA.”