Beijing’s U.S. Snub Chills Shangri-La Conference
By WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE — The mood was somber during the June 4 opening banquet of the Shangri-La Dialogue, where U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and the head of the Chinese delegation, Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, sat at different tables.
“Last year, they were practically holding hands,” said an official with the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), the London-based organizer of the dialogue, known more formally as the 9th Asia Security Summit.
“This year, they are holding no bilateral meetings with one another.” Among other disputes, Gates had planned to fly to Beijing to meet with Chinese military officials after the June 4-6 summit, but China turned down the visit at the last moment without officially citing a reason.
Denying Gates’ visit is another indication that China is using military-to-military relations as a political chess piece, said a U.S. defense analyst who was in Beijing the previous week with a U.S. delegation led by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“China has not gotten over the Taiwan arms sale in January and wants a commitment at a minimum from the U.S. to reduce — not necessarily stop — U.S. arms sales,” said the analyst.
“Also, the Chinese want the U.S. to end surveillance operations in the South China Sea. They do not want a written or even an oral commitment, just a drawdown,” the defense analyst said.
Gates told reporters June 3 he was “disappointed only in the sense that I think that a more open dialogue with the Chinese about our military modernization programs, about our strategic view of the world, is a constructive and helpful thing in a relationship between two great nations.”
Gates said Cold War-era dialogue with the Soviet Union helped “to prevent miscalculations and misunderstandings” and create “opportunities for cooperation.” In the U.S. delegation, there was a sense of aggravation about China’s attitude toward military-tomilitary contacts.
A U.S. military official said the “U.S.-China dialogue is critical, as our militaries continually interact with each other in the Pacific.” Further, “China has to realize mil-to-mil is beneficial to them and not something that is done in fits and starts.” The IISS official said Gates was holding bilateral meetings with other defense ministers, but not with Ma because it would not be “a peer-to-peer meeting.”
Though Ma is not a peer to Gates, the Chinese delegation at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue was the biggest so far, said IISS officials, indicating a willingness to interact more with the international community.
Besides Ma, there were seven government delegates and eight non-government delegate academic members this year, including Rear Adm. Guan Youfei, deputy chief of the Foreign Affairs Office in the Ministry of National Defense.
The summit has become the dominant military and security conference in Asia and the Pacific Rim, with ministers and secretaries of defense from Australia, Cambodia, Chile, Indonesia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, the United Kingdom and the U.S. in attendance this year.
Taiwan is still awaiting a decision by the United States to release 66 F-16C/D Block 50/52 fighter jets, and China is clearly attempting to forestall that release, said Taiwan and U.S. sources at the Shangri-La Dialogue.
In Taipei on June 3, Taiwan Legislative President Wang Jin-pyng said the United States is considering the release of the F-16s. Taiwan has a requirement to replace aging F-5 fighters and is preparing to mothball French-built Mirage 2000-5 fighters due to maintenance costs.
In 2008, the Bush administration released $6.5 billion worth of arms to Taiwan. In January, the Obama administration released $6.4 billion worth of additional arms. The two packages included UH-60 Black Hawk utility and AH-64D Apache attack helicopters, Patriot PAC-3 anti-missile defense systems, and Osprey-class mine hunting ships.
In 2001, a U.S. EP-3E Aries surveillance aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet and was forced to land on Hainan Island, a Chinese territory. In 2009, Chinese patrol and commercial vessels harassed two U.S. Navy survey ships, the Victorious and the Impeccable, in the South China Sea.