Join our Mailing List

"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Chinese general on a long march

November 8, 2009

By Peter J Brown
Asia Times
November 3, 2009

The United States and China are warming up - at
least symbolically - their military ties ahead of
United States President Barack Obama's first
official visit to China in mid-November. In late
October, General Xu Caihou, the second-highest
ranking officer in the Chinese People's
Liberation Army (PLA), started a long trip to the
US. At the age of 66, Xu serves as vice chairman
of China's Central Military Commission (CMC), and
as a member of the politburo of the Chinese Communist Party.

Xu visited a few US military bases as well as the
US Naval Academy, and at the Pentagon he met with
US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for the
second time. They met once before in Beijing
during the first trip that Gates made to Asia as secretary of defense in 2007.

Among other things, after leaving Washington DC,
Xu flew to the headquarters of the US Strategic
Command (US STRATCOM) outside Omaha, Nebraska, on
October 28, when he became the first PLA officer
to enter that US military base. Air Force General
Kevin Chilton, commander of US STRATCOM, held
discussions with Xu and later hosted a dinner for him.

Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia-Pacific
Security Program at the Center for a New American
Security in Washington, DC described Xu's visit
to US STRATCOM as possibly enabling a discussion
between the US and China on space and cyber
issues, in addition to nuclear issues. Because
Major General Yin Fanglong, director of the
political department of the Second Artillery
Corps, which commands China's missile and nuclear
forces, was also part of the delegation, nuclear
strategy and policy-related issues may well have
been on the agenda in Nebraska, too.

Xu was also accompanied by General Ma Xiaotian,
deputy chief of general staff of the PLA,
Lieutenant General Zhao Keshi, commander of the
Nanjing Military Area Command, and Rear Admiral
Jiang Weilie, chief of staff of East Fleet of the PLA Navy, among others.

"In the interest of strengthening our
military-to-military relations with a candid and
open exchange of information, we will not
disclose the details of the discussions," said a US STRATCOM spokesman.

Denmark describes the recent US-China "Strategic
and Economic Dialogue" as "a higher-level
dialogue" because the US-China
military-to-military relationship typically lags
far behind the economic and political aspects of
the relationship, "primarily because a general
lack of strategic trust and, frankly, China's
lack of interest in a frank and transparent military-to-military relationship."

"As one of two CMC vice chairmen, Xu ranks just
below President Hu Jintao. His arrival, instead
of Liang Guanglie -- China's Minister of National
Defense and Gates' nominal though not substantive
counterpart - demonstrates China's determination
that the appearance of transparency and openness
[as opposed to any] actual transparency and
openness is in its interests," said Denmark. "The
problem is that China continues to view
transparency as transactional and a tool of
strong powers over those that are weaker. Until
that attitude changes, expectations will always be limited."

Following a meeting between Xu and Gates, the two
countries announced that Gates would visit China
next year, and that General Chen Bingde, PLA
chief of the general staff, and US Navy Admiral
Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, will exchange visits.

Joint maritime search and rescue exercises, and
more military-to-military exchanges involving all
ranks including cultural and sporting events were
also announced. Gates wants these to be held on a
regular basis. In other words, Gates wants
continuity in these vital military-to-military
activities resulting in upticks in both frequency
and scope. For example, the next round of
Military Maritime Consultative Agreement
discussions are scheduled for December.

Xu's gave his most important public speech on
this trip at the Center for Strategic and
International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC
just prior to his meeting with Gates.

"Exchanges and cooperation between China and the
United States are important for world peace and
development, as well as for the fundamental
interests of the two nations," said Xu. "The
Chinese military is positive towards developing
[military-to-military] relations with the US
military. We will not forget that over 60 years
ago, for a just cause of mankind, China and the
US fought shoulder-to-shoulder against fascist forces."

Xu touched on the sensitive topic of what
constitutes acceptable conduct in the South China
Sea, where there have been brushes between US
naval ships and Chinese vessels. "That was caused
by the intensive reconnaissance missions
conducted by US Navy ships in China's exclusive
economic zones (EEZ), which infringed upon
Chinese interests," said Xu. "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."

According to Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the
CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies, Xu did not
say anything new. He was "seeking to portray the
PLA as the 'people's army' that is focused on
MOOTW - [military operations other than war]".

"Differences persist, for example, over US
surveillance operations in China's EEZ. China
views these as challenges to its core interests,
which they insist should be respected," said
Glaser. "The US views freedom of navigation as among its core interests."

Each side also has its own list of the most
important issues to be addressed at this point, according to Glaser.

"The US and China have a different list. For
China, the issues are US military ties with
Taiwan and arms sales to Taiwan, operation in
China's EEZ as well as the US National Defense
Authorization Act of 2000 restrictions, and the
publication [by the US Department of Defense] of
the Chinese military power report," said Glaser.
"The US is interested in expanding bilateral
military cooperation, boosting cooperation with
China on Iran and North Korea, persuading the
Chinese to explain their military programs,
especially their nuclear modernization and
development of anti-ship ballistic missiles. The
US will also urge China to reduce its military buildup opposite Taiwan."

Drew Thompson, director of China studies at The
Nixon Center, sees China's decision to have Xu
address a public audience on this trip as an
indicator of China's desire "to engage in public
diplomacy and shape the image of the PLA abroad".

"His visit does not promise or mark a
breakthrough in Sino-US military-to-military
relations, but represents one step in a long
dialogue which has shown some positive trends
recently," said Thompson." That said, there are
still areas of deep mutual distrust which will
not be easily overcome. Until some of those
divergent interests are addressed, the prospects
for a dramatic deepening of the military-to-military relationship are limited."

Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the
International Assessment and Strategy Center in
Washington DC, listened to Xu's speech and found
that important details were lacking. China's
reluctance to become more transparent was driven
home by Xu's decision to hand out a book - The
Wisdom of Sun Tzu - as part of a gift package to members of the audience.

"Nearly 2,000 years before Machiavelli, Sun Tzu
raised lying and deception to the acme of
statesmanship," said Fisher. Also, "there was no
attempt [during Xu's speech] to satisfy demands
for 'transparency' in areas of concern to the US
and China's neighbors; no serious details on
nukes, intentions versus Taiwan, Japan or future power projection plans."

Fisher came away from Xu's speech with the
impression that Xu apparently had no interest in
fully addressing real concerns about China's
rapidly growing hard military capabilities. This
explains the long video on the PLA's response to
the May 2008 earthquake, and the "most prominent
theme" in Xu's speech - the
military-operations-other-than-war dimension of PLA force deployments.

"Xu sought to address concerns about China's
military buildup as being based on misperceptions
in some foreign reports," said Fisher.

Retired US Navy Rear Admiral Eric McVadon,
director of Asia-Pacific Studies at the Institute
for Foreign Policy Analysis, was contacted in
Beijing where he was presenting a paper at the
8th International Symposium on Sun Tzu's Art of
War. In his paper, McVadon stresses the
importance of maritime cooperation across military and commercial areas.

"Such engagement would help especially to
de-conflict US and Chinese strategic intentions
as China emerges economically and militarily.
Future areas of cooperation could include
cooperative initiatives in the fields of fishing
and other extraction of ocean and seabed
resources, maritime safety, oceanography,
hydrography, ship construction, coast guard and
other law-enforcement responsibilities in a more
dangerous world," wrote McVadon. "Anti-pollution
efforts, disaster relief operations and
scientific activities such as weather and sea
forecasting, climate research and tsunami
detection would also represent the kind of
constructive engagement across many fronts that
would reinforce what will undoubtedly be the
world's most important strategic relationship in the 21st century."

While the US and China have engaged in joint
search and rescue missions and training in the
past, McVadon believes the time is right for more
extensive and purposeful interaction in terms of
disaster response in particular, and that East
Asia as a whole should welcome the prospect - as
desired and appropriate - "of a combined response
from US and Chinese military forces - as well as help from others".

"As a practical matter, the time is right for a
move toward the conduct of China-US humanitarian
assistance and disaster relief exercises,
specifically including naval exercises.
Humanitarian assistance and disaster relief
operations and exercises are permitted [under the
US National Defense Authorization Act of 2000]
and seemingly even encouraged by virtue of this
specific exclusion from the list of restricted
activities," said McVadon. "The PLA Navy and US
Navy should exercise in advance so that the
Chinese forces, including the new large
amphibious ship and a new hospital ship, feel
confident and poised in this new undertaking for them."

For a new generation of military officers and
leaders in both countries as well, the visit by
Xu to the US demonstrates that the 21st century
is going to be far different than the preceding century.

"It is obvious that Xu's visit is very
significant," said Paul Smith, professor of
national security affairs at the US Naval War
College. "China is engaged in a breakout strategy
that impinges upon - and possibly disrupts and
challenges - the security architecture that the
US has held in place since the end of World War
II. This means tension is inevitable which will
become painfully obvious when the next 'event' occurs.

"When I teach the current generation of US
officers who are being shaped by the 'post Cold
War' era experience, there is little passion
about the need for the US to defend or support
Taiwan, for example. It is up there with
sanctions on Cuba, which is a relic of an earlier
era, designed to satisfy the narrow interests of
key interest groups whose power is waning."

Before returning home, Xu's last stop was in
Hawaii where he arrived after visiting a US Navy
air station in San Diego, California. In
Honolulu, Xu was scheduled to meet with US Navy
Admiral Robert Willard, commander of the US
Pacific Command. However, the writing was on the
wall long before Xu's plane landed. Regardless of
the outcome, the presence of Rear Admiral Jiang
Weilie in the delegation in particular, gave
discussions of recent incidents in international waters added importance.

"[China interprets] military operations in their
[EEZ] differently than we do - and differently,
frankly, than the majority of countries do
globally," Willard said recently. "We are more
than happy to sit down and have an adult discussion about our differences."

According to Denmark, China's behavior in the
Indian Ocean stands in sharp contrast to its
behavior in the South China Sea and the Western
Pacific Ocean "where Chinese surface ships have
acted unprofessionally and irresponsibly by
sailing dangerously close to US ships operating
in international waters, and Chinese submarines
have unexpectedly surfaced extremely close to a US aircraft carrier".

"This behavior is remarkably similar to the
actions practiced by Chinese pilots in 2000,
which precipitated the 2001 EP-3 incident," said
Denmark, in reference to a mid-air collision
southeast of Hainan island, southern China,
between a US surveillance aircraft and a Chinese
interceptor jet. The situation is vastly
different in the Indian Ocean because "China is
inhibited there both by its own lack of military
capabilities, but more importantly by political considerations."

"China's leaders have been trumpeting its
'peaceful rise' and the need for a 'harmonious
world' for years, in part to allay regional
concerns about China's expanding economic,
political, and military power. Acting assertively
in the Indian Ocean would only reinforce these concerns," said Denmark.

As for the South China Sea, Willard has
emphasized repeatedly that the US is going to
hold firm and is not planning to exit under any circumstance.

"The US has operated in the maritime domain in
this region of the world for 150 years, and we
have no intention of doing differently. We very
much exert our right to operate militarily and
with our commercial ships in international water
throughout the Asia-Pacific region."

Still, he views the US-China relationship as one
that is evolving and is not hostile.

"China is not our enemy. We look forward to a
constructive relationship with China, and their
constructive contribution to the security of the
Asia-Pacific region," said Willard.

While both sides were intent on improving
relations, there was little indication from Xu's
visit that either side was prepared give much to
realize that ambition, according to Brad
Glosserman, executive director of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu.

"The big issues in the relationship remain
unchanged" and the military-to-military
relationship "remains hostage to those issues,"
said Glosserman. "In particular, expect another
big blow up if and when the Obama administration
decides to sell arms to Taiwan. Still, both sides
send the right signals even if they cannot follow up on them."

* Peter J Brown is a freelance writer from the US state of Maine.
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank