At Shangri-La Dialogue, Gates Challenges China To Improve Military Relations
By WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE - U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cautioned that China's continued refusal to restart military-to-military exchanges was counterproductive.
China cancelled exchanges after the U.S. released a $6 billion arms package to Taiwan in January.
We need "sustained and reliable military-to-military contacts at all levels that reduce miscommunication, misunderstanding and miscalculation," he said. "There is a real cost to any absence of military-to-military relations."
Gates made the comments June 5 in a speech at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) 9th Asia Security Summit, the Shangri-La Dialogue.
In November, U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao made a "commitment to advance sustained and reliable military-to-military relations."
In October, during a visit to Washington by Chinese Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, Gates and Xu agreed to "seven points of consensus" on expanding and improving military cooperation and exchanges.
These included high-level mutual visits and exchanges of military officials, cooperation on humanitarian missions, broader communication on land forces and maritime security, and exchanges of junior officers. There was also an agreement to conduct a joint air-sea search and rescue exercise.
Regrettably, there has been no progress in recent months, Gates said. "Chinese officials have broken off interactions between our militaries, citing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as the rationale," he said, adding that it made "little sense" to repeatedly interrupt dialogue and exchanges to the "vagaries of political weather."
Gates said arms sales to Taiwan "are nothing new" and the U.S. had "demonstrated in a very public way that we do not support independence for Taiwan."
"We strongly encourage the cross-Strait improvement in relations and perhaps a time will come when this issue will go away because of those improved relations, but we will maintain our obligations" under the Taiwan Relations Act, he said.
China and Taiwan are preparing for the signing of a major economic agreement, the Economic Cooperation Framework Agreement, allowing for greater trade and investment ties.
China has also done nothing to stop the military buildup "largely focused on Taiwan," Gates said, and that arms sales to Taiwan were in response to that threat.
Holding military-to-military relations "hostage" will not change U.S. policy toward Taiwan, he said.
TAKING 'ACQUIESCENCE' FOR GRANTED?
"Too often times, American policy makers tend to take for granted Chinese acquiescence on U.S. arms sales to Taiwan," said one Chinese academic source, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "And that is something that has become increasingly counterproductive, if not dangerous, as the shifting balance of power, perceived or real, between China and the U.S. has unsettled the equilibrium of the game."
Defense analysts indicate China has roughly 1,300 short-range ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan and is engaged in a major military build-up that includes new submarines, surface ships, fighter aircraft and long-range missiles.
Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, director general, strategic studies department, National Defense University, directly challenged Gates, saying that arms sales to Taiwan "hurt China's core interests" and that the U.S. treated China an "enemy."
"I would like to state for the record that the U.S. does not consider China an enemy," Gates said in response.
"The irony is the odds of a conflict over Taiwan are declining due to improvements in cross-Strait ties between Beijing and Taipei," said Jonathan Pollack, a China specialist at the US Naval War College. "And as the Taiwan scenario goes away, the Chinese military is looking beyond Taiwan for new goals and missions."
TWO SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT
Zhuang Jianzhong, vice director of the Center for National Strategy Studies at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, said Gates' speech indicated a strong desire for positive military relations between the two, but there are "two opposing voices in China, the hawks and the doves, debating the issue of military exchanges."
"It's not a generational debate, but a mix," he said. "Though I think that as time passes more reasonable voices will prevail sooner or later and military exchanges will be begin again."
There is clearly a division within the Chinese delegation visiting the Shangri-La Dialogue. A Chinese government official said military-to-military exchanges would "soon be back on track."
Pollack said China is "not set up for crisis management" and there has been no "real war" since the 1979 Chinese invasion of Vietnam.
"Many in the Chinese government see the risks, but the People's Liberation Army is a very conservative institution." On crisis management, Pollack said, "there is an absence of coordination in the system."
However, China's military has been building up more experience dealing with other militaries recently during anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden. "With each deployment they become more confident," he said. But the "potential for trouble goes up as the lack of communication between each other drops," Pollack said.
Retired U.S. Adm. William Owens is a major advocate of improved military relations between China and the U.S.
"The military-to-military dialogue is not very good right now. A huge amount of goodness would come from continued dialogue," he said.
Owens, who served as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration, created the Sanya Initiative to foster better understanding between the Chinese and U.S. defense community.
The initiative brings together retired Chinese and U.S. military officials for informal discussions on how to improve understanding.
Owens wants to "get past the talking points and build mutual friendships that last." It is the "personal interface that matters."
Owens said that the Hong Kong-based China-United States Exchange Foundation, a non-profit, non-government organization, backs the Sanya Initiative. The first meeting was on Hainan Island in 2008 and the second in Hawaii in 2009. A third is planned in China later this year, he said.
Critics of Owens have questioned his motives, but Chinese and U.S. delegates at the Shangri-La Dialogue said continued dialogue at any level might be needed to stop an incident from spinning out of control.
A U.S. government official at the Shangri-La Dialogue said China had not "answered the hot line" during previous crises.
The U.S. Defense Department and China's Ministry of National Defense installed a defense telephone link in 2008. During the late 1990s an executive-level hot line was installed between the White House and Zhongnanhai, the Beijing complex that serves as the Communist Party headquarters, in response to the 1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis.
In 2009, Chinese ships in the South China Sea harassed two U.S. Navy survey ships, Impeccable and Victorious. In 2001, a U.S. intelligence aircraft, an EP-3 Aries, collided with a Chinese fighter and was forced to land at Hainan Island.
In both cases the Chinese did not answer the "hot line," said the U.S. government source. One Chinese delegate at the Shangri-La Dialogue said Beijing did not answer the phone because officials "were angry" and China "expressed its anger by not answering."
Chinese delegates at Shangri-La repeatedly stated the U.S. must discontinue surveillance missions in the South China Sea.
Gates said the South China Sea is an area of "growing concern."
"Our policy is clear: it is essential that stability, freedom of navigation, and free and unhindered economic development be maintained," he said. "We do not take sides on any competing sovereignty claims, but we oppose the use of force and action that hinder freedom of navigation."
■ April 1, 2001: A Chinese J-8 fighter collides with a U.S. EP-3E Aries intelligence aircraft near Hainan Island. The 24-member crew was detained until April 11.
■ October 2006: A Chinese submarine surfaced near the USS Kitty Hawk carrier group during exercises near Okinawa.
■ March 4, 2009: Chinese fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels harassed the U.S. Navy survey ship Victorious. A second incident occurred in May with same vessel.
■ March 8, 2009: Chinese fishing boats and maritime patrol vessels near Hainan Island harassed the U.S. Navy survey ship Impeccable.
■ June 11, 2009: A Chinese submarine collided with a sonar array being towed by the USS John McCain near the Subic Bay, Philippines.