Better U.S.-China Mil Relations Hinge on Taiwan Arms
By WENDELL MINNICK
SINGAPORE — U.S. attempts to restart military-to-military exchanges with China, canceled in January after Washington released a $6.5 billion arms package to Taiwan, appear doomed for the time being.
Chinese delegates to the Shangri-La Dialogue here earlier this month said Beijing fears President Barack Obama’s administration will also approve Taiwan’s request for 66 F-16C/D fighters, and that no military relations were possible until the issue is concluded.
Yet the Chinese delegation, made up of academics as well as government and military officials, did not appear to be completely unified about Beijing’s tough stance. Some supported lifting the ban on military exchanges, despite politics.
The leaders of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are behaving like “adolescents,” one member said. This is not a “mature way to conduct business with the U.S.”
Others supported a tougher line. During a question-and-answer period with U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, PLA Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu said Washington was treating Beijing as an enemy and hurting China’s “core interests” by selling arms to Taiwan. Gates denied that.
“There are certainly different points of view in China on how China should respond to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and other steps by the United States that challenge China’s core interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, who attended both the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (SED) and the Shangri-La.
“Those who are confident about China’s power position relative to the United States and are deeply suspicious of U.S. intentions toward China are willing to stand up to the United States and demand concessions.” But others said the PLA itself was not bucking its civilian masters.
“There is no evidence that the Chinese military takes forward-leaning positions ahead of, much less counter to, the PRC civilian leadership,” said Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the Heritage Foundation. “I believe that Gates is being ill-served if he is being advised that there is some kind of factionalism, or that the PLA is operating ‘off the reservation.’”
Another China-watcher, Larry Wortzel of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, noted the PLA makes few foreign-policy decisions of its own, but rather, acts within the broader foreign policy guidance of the Central Military Commission and the Politburo Standing Committee.
“Generally, the approach seeks to take advantage of American eagerness to ‘engage’ and the naïveté of senior U.S. officers and civilians that drinking tea and looking at bases changes approaches fundamental to national interest. For the Chinese, it does not,” Wortzel said.
To be certain, senior U.S. officials want to move on from basic functions to substantive discussions about, say, freedom of navigation in the South China Sea.
But to the Chinese, even launching discussions about such matters would constitute “yielding or compromising on strongly held general principles, so they don’t engage,” Wortzel said.
In their drive to kill Taiwan’s request for new F-16s, China is ignoring direct dialogue with senior U.S. defense officials, preferring instead to influence Washington through retired U.S. generals, Wortzel said.
“The Chinese side understands that the United States participants are now senior retired officers with deep ties to major corporations and boards that do business with China,” Wortzel said.
“I believe the Chinese side suspended those talks [military-to-military exchanges] in hopes that the former generals/admirals will weigh in against the F-16C/D sales” to Taiwan, Wortzel said.
The latest cessation of military-tomilitary contacts indicates the Central Military Commission and the Politburo “are no longer willing to compromise on or essentially ignore arms sales to Taiwan,” Wortzel said.
“Since the United States is considering F-16C/D, the Chinese side will probably keep the eager senior DoD leaders at bay, hoping to influence U.S. policy.”
One forum for retired Chinese and U.S. officers to discuss military issues recently recommended China and the United States place military-to-military dialogue at the same level as the SED, ensuring that “military dialogue does not cease to exist” during times of disagreement, said retired U.S. Navy Adm. William Owens, who heads the Sanya Initiative, which brings together retired U.S. and Chinese service chiefs.
Owens said the United States has “no charter” for long-term strategic engagement with China. Part of the problem is many in the U.S. are “held back by the ways of the past” Cold War, including the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act (TRA) that guarantees the United States will continue providing defensive arms to the self-governing island. He said U.S. officials should review the TRA to see whether it remains practical for today’s geopolitical environment.
Another part of the problem is the United States is “tactical and short-term” while China is “much longer term in strategies and directions,” he said.
This has prevented both sides from engaging each other in meaningful dialogue on military issues.
Owens said Sanya is sponsored by the Hong Kong-based China-United States Exchange Foundation and is financially backed by corporations and private individuals in China, Singapore and the United States. Sanya’s efforts to better understanding between China and the United States military community is a private endeavor, not governmental, he said.
U.S. officials were optimistic about the prospects for renewing ties a few weeks ago, when Chinese officials welcomed a U.S. delegation headed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to the SED on May 24-25. But those hopes were dashed just a few days later, when Beijing rebuffed a request by Gates to pay a visit to China.
That set a chilly tone for the 9th Asia Security Summit — the formal name for the Shangri-La talks — where Gates called for better military exchanges in a June 5 speech.
Things didn’t get better when Zhu challenged the secretary. Zhu, the director general of the Strategic Studies Department of the PLA’s National Defense University, has come to personify China’s hardcore stance on Taiwan and the United States.
He is famous for a 2005 statement that Beijing might use nuclear weapons if the United States attacked China with conventional arms during a war over the self-governing island. Zhu was reportedly reprimanded by higher-ups, who claimed the general was speaking from a “personal perspective” — yet his appearance at the Shangri-La Dialogue indicates that his words still carry weight in Beijing.