Chinese military leaders visit US. What do they want?
China suspended military ties with the Pentagon early last year, after the US made an arms sale to Taiwan. Now, eight Chinese generals will meet with their American counterparts.
It‚Äôs a historical first, a concert that America‚Äôs top Army officer estimates was 30 years in the making.
‚ÄúWe think this is a great opportunity for the two militaries‚Äô armies ... to come together and to begin to get to know each other,‚ÄĚ Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Army Chief of Staff, said.
It is no secret that tension between America and China has been growing along with China‚Äôs military ambitions and US arms sales to Taiwan. The hope is that what has jokingly been dubbed the ‚Äúbattle of the bands‚ÄĚ will be a step toward helping to build a ‚Äústrong, stable‚ÄĚ partnership, Dempsey said.
The concert was a prelude to a visit this week by Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the People‚Äôs Liberation Army, along with seven other generals. It is the PLA‚Äôs first trip to America since China suspended military ties with the Pentagon early last year, after the US sold more than $6 billion in arms to Taiwan.
The question now is how much the military leaders can realistically hope to accomplish, given US concerns about the pace of China‚Äôs military buildup ‚Äď and Chinese suspicions about American intentions in the Pacific.
In the past year, the Pentagon leadership has expressed growing concern about China‚Äôs cyberespionage forays and its robust Navy, including the possible launch of its first aircraft carrier later this year.
These trends are troubling to US military officials, who are seeking to expand American military presence in the Pacific.
Chinese efforts to flex its muscle in recent years have at times sent shockwaves through the Pentagon. China‚Äôs successful ballistic missile shoot-down of one of its own orbiting satellites in 2007 was a feat widely seen as an ominous move toward the militarization of space. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm increasingly concerned about where China seems to be heading with that,‚ÄĚ Mullen told the Monitor.
During this visit, leaders on both sides are seeking to strike a more conciliatory tone, especially since it‚Äôs on the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao‚Äôs first state visit to the US in January.
Pentagon officials are particularly interested in opening lines of communication with their military counterparts and establishing crisis communication protocols for operating in the seas around China.
Chinese officials refer to these areas as their ‚Äúnear seas‚ÄĚ ‚Äď areas to which they are ‚Äúincreasingly seeking to prevent unwanted access,‚ÄĚ says Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
‚ÄúThey believe that vessels who operate in the seas must secure the coastal state‚Äôs approval to be there,‚ÄĚ Ms. Glaser says. ‚ÄúThe United States has a different interpretation.‚ÄĚ
While the Pentagon would like to see crisis communication protocols for operating in those seas, ‚Äúthe Chinese attitude is, ‚ÄėYou don‚Äôt belong here, so why would we want to make you feel safe?‚Äô ‚ÄĚ says Dean Cheng, research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.
‚ÄúThe US attitude is, ‚ÄėWe‚Äôre going to operate here. Why don‚Äôt we figure out how to make sure misunderstandings don‚Äôt get out of control?‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Mr. Cheng adds. ‚ÄúIf there is no understanding, the US attitude is, ‚ÄėWe‚Äôre still going to be there.‚Äô ‚ÄĚ
For its part, China wants the US to stop selling arms to Taiwan. ‚ÄúWhen you see all the Chinese talking points ‚Äď about mutual respect and benefits ‚Äď they all come back to, ‚ÄėDon‚Äôt sell arms to Taiwan,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Cheng says. ‚ÄúSo in some ways, it‚Äôs nice and simple.‚ÄĚ
Such arms sales are up to Congress to determine, however. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not as if Mullen can say, ‚ÄėAbsolutely, right,‚Äô ‚ÄĚ Cheng adds.
For these reasons and others, ‚ÄúI am under the impression that neither the Chinese nor the American sides are very optimistic about sustained military-to-military contact beyond the bare minimum for stability purposes,‚ÄĚ Cheng says.
‚ÄúThrowing epaulets on the table and going outside to have a fistfight isn‚Äôt going to happen,‚ÄĚ says Cheng. ‚ÄúAnd yet neither side seems particularly interested in substantive talk.‚ÄĚ The result, he reckons, is ‚Äúa standstill.‚ÄĚ