November 2, 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."