January 7, 2011 — In late 2007, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates flew to Beijing bearing pledges of harmony and vows to strengthen the Pentagon’s ties with China’s booming military. On Saturday he sets forth on the same journey, but with mostly conflict and suspicion to show for the three years that have elapsed.
Mr. Gates, who will meet in Beijing with President Hu Jintao a week ahead of the Chinese leader’s state visit to the White House, has been frustrated by the on-again, largely off-again military relationship and is eager, in what will likely be his last year as defense secretary, to show results. But Mr. Gates’s own spokesman was hardly making promises ahead of the trip.
“I don’t think he goes into it with a predisposed pessimism about the chances of success,” Geoffrey S. Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, told reporters on Friday. He described Mr. Gates as encouraged and hopeful, but also acknowledged that “we’ve raised a lot of these issues before; we’ve raised them in Beijing, we’ve raised them in Washington, we will raise them again.”
Mr. Gates’s goals for the week-long trip, which will include stops in Tokyo and Seoul, are much the same as they were three years ago: greater transparency from Chinese leaders about the state and intent of the country’s secretive military and more stable ties between the world’s military superpower and a rapidly rising one.
At the same time, Mr. Gates will urge China to put more pressure on its ally North Korea, after a series of North Korean provocations, most recently its deadly shelling of a South Korean island, that have raised fears of a military confrontation in the region.
But China experts in the United States say there is also a growing danger of a confrontation between American and Chinese forces in the waters of the Pacific, where Chinese ships have increasingly challenged the United States Navy.
“We are a much more powerful military presence there than they are, and they in fact can’t muscle us out,” said Kenneth G. Lieberthal, a China policy adviser in the Clinton administration who is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution. “They want to hassle us out rather than whack us out. But as they try to hassle us, there’s always a chance something more serious will occur.”
In the years since Mr. Gates’s 2007 visit, until now his only trip to Beijing as defense secretary, China has repeatedly cut off military ties with Washington in response to announcements of American arms sales to Taiwan, which China claims as part of its sovereign territory. In fact, only weeks after the 2007 visit, the Chinese responded to a sale of American missiles to Taiwan by canceling permission for sailors on the American aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk to take a Thanksgiving shore leave in Hong Kong.
China also suspended military ties in 2008 and in January 2010, prompting Mr. Gates to chastise the Chinese military last June, saying that the relationship should not be repeatedly interrupted by “the vagaries of political weather.”
Despite some signs that this visit could be different — the Chinese are described as intent on making Mr. Hu’s meetings with President Obama a success — a number of China experts are skeptical that military ties with China will markedly improve.
“We’re not sure if China sees much value in the military-to-military relationship beyond having something to cancel when the relationship gets rocky,” said Abraham M. Denmark, a former China country director in Mr. Gates’s office who now directs the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
Defense experts say that the main difference between the Chinese military now and in 2007 is that it has grown ever more confident, not only because of its expansion and new weapons programs, but because of the financial crisis in the United States, which it sees as a sign of weakness.
Bernard D. Cole, a specialist on the Chinese Navy at the National War College, said there was some hope in Mr. Gates’s visit that the Chinese would put more pressure on North Korea because of their own growing concerns about Pyongyang’s behavior. But the next time the United States announces an arms sale to Taiwan, he said, China would likely revert to the familiar cycle and suspend military ties once again.
“We’ll be right back in the bucket,” he said.