Sino-U.S. Military Relations May Be Improving
By Wendell Minnick
Taipei - China's second-highest ranking military officer, Gen. Xu Caihou, painted a rosy picture of his country's military modernization during a visit to Washington last week.
Xu, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, downplayed China's military threat during an Oct. 28 meeting with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates.
Gates and Xu agreed to "seven points of consensus" on Sino-U.S. military cooperation and exchanges - including high-level mutual visits and exchanges of military officials, more cooperation on humanitarian aid, broader communication on land forces and maritime security, and junior officer exchanges. There was also an agreement to conduct a joint air-sea search and rescue exercise. Gates is expected to visit China in 2010.
The meeting comes ahead of President Barack Obama's Nov. 15-18 trip to China, where talks are expected to focus on improved military ties and Beijing's continued objections to U.S. support for Taiwan.
During an Oct. 26 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Xu said much of China's military modernization was dedicated to counterterrorism, peacekeeping and disaster relief.
Improved Sino-U.S. military relations have sticking points. Military exchanges were discontinued after Washington approved a $6.5 billion arms deal with Taiwan in October 2008. Three maritime incidents involving Chinese and U.S. vessels in China's Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) followed the arms release.
Xu blamed the incidents on "intensive reconnaissance missions conducted by U.S. naval ships in China's EEZ, which infringed upon Chinese interests.
"It is encouraging to see that both sides have recognized that we should not allow such incidents to damage our state-to-state and mil-to-mil relations," Xu said. "One testament to that is the recent round of MMCA [Military Maritime Consultative Agreement talks] between our two navies held earlier in Beijing this year. Neither of us wants to see this happen again, so I believe that the two navies should continue our consultation and discussion in maritime military security in a spirit of friendship and mutual understanding."
The Sino-U.S. MMCA, signed in 1998, was the first agreement on confidence-building measures between the two countries.
"The trend is moving in the right direction," said Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University. Military exchanges have resumed under the Obama administration, and the seven points of consensus show promise, but there are still obstacles, he said, including arms sales to Taiwan and EEZ issues.
"But there are positive signs even with those tough questions. If we could handle them with the strategic vision or with the strategic reassurance, these questions could gradually be resolved in the future."
He also minimized China's defense spending and research by comparing it to the U.S. defense budget. "The U.S. defense expenditure in 2008 was $68.3 billion; that of China was $6.12 billion, representing 8.8 percent of the U.S. defense expenditure," Xu said. "In terms of the share in the GDP [gross domestic product], China has a defense expenditure that is 1.4 percent ... compared to 4.8 percent in the case of the United States."
INCREASE IN CHINESE SPENDING
Richard Bitzinger, a former CIA analyst, said that Xu "trots out the usual shopworn arguments in comparing Chinese defense expenditures to those of the United States" to downplay Beijing's military spending.
In reality, Chinese defense spending has "gone up 500 percent in real terms since 1997," said Bitzinger, now at the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies. "Chinese defense spending growth has outstripped national economic growth," increasing 11 percent to 13 percent a year in real terms, while its annual GDP growth has been around 8 percent to 9 percent.
Bitzinger said Beijing no longer compares its defense budget to those of Britain, Russia or Japan "because in the past few years, China has outstripped all of these countries in military spending."
China now spends 60 percent more on defense than Japan. "China has not only replaced Japan as the largest defense spender in the Asia-Pacific, it is the second largest defense spender in the world, after the United States," Bitzinger said.
On China's development of new ballistic and cruise missiles, Xu said the weapons were "limited" to "meet the minimum requirement for maintaining national security" and were "entirely for self-defense."
He made no mention of the new road-mobile Dong Feng 31A intercontinental ballistic missile, capable of hitting Washington, or of China's 1,300 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan.
Instead of focusing on uncomfortable issues like nuking Chicago, Xu talked in equal terms with the U.S. on regional security issues, suggesting China was on par with U.S. military capabilities.
One mainland Chinese source, speaking on anonymity, said the translation of Xu's comments at CSIS were slightly off.
"It is almost amazing to read the Chinese line that 'both China and the U.S. have significant influences in the world'," he said. "I think the English translation here does not exactly match the original Chinese, which is 'China and the United States are the two countries that have significant influences in the world.' That is almost a shameless elevation of China to a status that is equivalent to the U.S. Maybe it says something about China's psyche."
Apologists for Beijing suggest China's westward expansion and need to secure the South China Sea mirror America's early Manifest Destiny and Monroe Doctrine policies. Critics of the comparison argue this does not justify the military occupation of Tibet, threats to invade Taiwan, and claims the South China Sea is a "Chinese lake."
Xu also hooked China's national security modernization to the U.S counterterrorism bandwagon.
"We notice that the United States regards terrorism as today's major security threat. The threats facing China caused by secessionist, extremist and terrorist forces are also on the clear rise."
He cited terrorist attacks by East Turkestan separatists and continued separatist forces in Taiwan.
"I also need to point out that China is yet to be completely reunited while secessionist schemes of Taiwan independence, East Turkestan independence and Tibet independence forces are still under way," Xu said.
Taiwan is pushing hard for the U.S. release of new F-16s to replace its aging F-5 and Mirage 2000-5 fighters. China has threatened to discontinue military relations with the United States in the event of a release.