Saturday, January 2, 2010

Despite Tensions, Experts Anticipate Improvement in Chinese-U.S. Relations

Defense News


Despite Tensions, Experts Anticipate Improvement in Chinese-U.S. Relations


TAIPEI — Continuing attempts by the United States to develop better military relations with China are expected to remain sluggish in 2010. Deep-seated historical distrust between the two nations and a long tradition by Beijing of not compromising on core interests in negotiations with the United States are hurdles. A weakened U.S. economic position also contributes.

“Clearly, the major factor has been the trade relationship and China’s financing of U.S. debt,” said Larry Wortzel, vice chairman at the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. “That certainly had an effect on broader strategic relations.” China owns about $790 billion —
just over 23 percent — of U.S. Treasury securities sold to foreign nations. China’s booming economy, fueled largely by U.S. spending habits, has helped pay for a massive military modernization program that includes new fighter aircraft, naval vessels and missiles.

Taiwan, not surprisingly, has also been a significant issue in U.S.-China relations. In October 2008, China severed military exchanges with the United States over a $6.5 billion arms sale to Taiwan. Three maritime incidents followed with the U.S. Navy.

The first two took place in early 2009 when Chinese maritime patrol and fishing vessels harassed two U.S. Navy ocean survey ships, the Impeccable and Victorious, in China’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). Many in Washington interpreted the incident as a subtle warning from Beijing that continued intrusions into China’s EEZ and arms sales to Taiwan would not go unpunished.

Then in June, a Chinese submarine collided with a towed sonar array from the USS John McCain, an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, near the Philippines.

Though the naval incidents were disturbing, Beijing did resume strategic discussions with the United States. Analysts, however, said little was accomplished.

In February, the two nations resumed Defense Policy Coordination Talks in Beijing. In June, the 10th U.S.-China Defense Consultative Talks restarted after an 18­month hiatus in Beijing. In July, the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue took place in Washington. In October, China’s second highest­ranking military officer, Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, visited Washington. And the year ended with President Barack Obama’s visit to Beijing in November.

“Obama’s visit is a step in the right direction, but the long-term challenge remains,” said a Chinese academic source speaking on terms of anonymity.

In a joint statement released by Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao, both sides reaffirmed a 1998 commitment not to target each other with nuclear weapons, stated a common interest in promoting the peaceful use of outer space and agreed to engage in more strategic discussions.

Further meetings for 2010 include a U.S. invitation to Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and a Chinese invitation to Robert Gates, the U.S. defense secretary, and Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Chen Bingde

However, the joint statement ap­pears disappointing, especially after the resumption of military talks by China. “If the joint statement is anything indicative of what both leaders said behind closed-door meetings, it seems the answer they provide for that question is less than exciting,” the Chinese academic source said. 

Some Key Issues Untouched

Despite efforts by Washington to engage Beijing in meaningful dialogue, China appears unlikely to dance to the U.S. beat for the time being.

“I don’t expect much movement on the part of the People’s Liberation Army, or Central Military Commission or General Staff Department, to engage in meaningful dialogue on three critical issues: computer network or cyber operations, space warfare and military activities in the EEZ,” Wortzel said.

Despite pledges made by both during the joint statement to improve military relations, “the two militaries continue to eye each other with wariness and suspicion,” the Chinese academic source said.

Many in the Pentagon maintain the perspective that China’s military buildup is aimed at challenging U.S. primacy, analysts said. On the other hand, “in the eyes of the Chinese military, suspicion of U.S. intentions can only be confirmed by the increasing U.S. military reconnaissance activities along China’s coastlines” in addition to continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the academic source said.

U.S. efforts to engage China on strategic issues have a “Jekyll-Hyde” personality, the Chinese source said. The U.S. wants better military ties with China, but also fears China’s military modernization effort.

A massive military parade celebrating China’s 60th anniversary on Oct. 1 did little to calm fears. The parade was reminiscent of Soviet-era May Day parades, bristling with the latest missiles and fighter aircraft. The parade included 8,000 troops forming 56 phalanxes, along with 500 tanks.

Suspicions are also growing that China is influencing U.S. policymakers by recruiting former U.S. government officials to work for Chinese lobbying groups and so-called academic institutions funded by Beijing.

There have been allegations the Chinese government is behind the Sanya Initiative, a conference that brings together former top-tier Chinese and U.S. military officials to discuss ways of bettering military relations. The conference has been jokingly referred to as “Red Sanya.”

Though the exchange of retired Chinese and U.S. defense officials appears harmless, there is a lack of transparency about the true nature of the Hong Kong-based China-United States Exchange Foundation sponsoring Sanya, said Mark Stokes, the Pentagon’s former country director for China and Taiwan.

Efforts have been made to control the increase in Chinese interaction with the U.S. military. The U.S. Congress has recently “imposed increased requirements on Department of Defense reporting on its relations and engagement with China,” Wortzel said, “which will cause the Department of Defense to evaluate its engagement plans and gauge them to ensure that they benefit the U.S.”