May 07, 2012

Chinese General Downplays China’s Role in Cyber Attacks

The U.S. and Chinese militaries should work as equals and avoid the “stereotype” of being confrontational superpowers, Chinese General Liang Guanglie said on his first visit to Washington as defense minister.

Speaking to reporters yesterday following talks with Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Liang disputed a question about China’s responsibility for cyber attacks against the U.S. and said the two sides discussed ways to “build a new state-to- state relationship that’s not a stereotype of two major powers predestined for conflict.”

Liang Guanglie, China's minister for national defense. Photographer: Munshi Ahmed/Bloomberg

Liang’s call to be treated as an equal reflects China’s growing desire, backed by its $5.9 trillion economy, to be considered a power on par with the U.S. It comes as the U.S. is shifting its military posture to the Asia-Pacific area, reflecting concerns by the U.S. and nations in the region about China’s expanding reach and competition for resources such as oil and gas in the South China Sea.

“I proposed that the two militaries build a new relationship based on equality, mutual benefit and cooperation,” said Liang.

China’s emphasis on equality is in line with its previous “win-win formulations” intended to show that its economic and military rise is not intended to diminish U.S. power, said Patrick Cronin, an Asia specialist at the Center for New American Security, a policy center in Washington. Still, “China wants to be treated like a superpower but does not yet want responsibilities of one,” he said.

‘Deal With Challenges’

Liang’s visit, the first such high level military visit since President Barack Obama took office, comes after a series of incidents that in the past would have derailed high-level meetings between officials of the two countries. This is also the first meeting between the top U.S. and Chinese defense ministers after the U.S. in November announced plans to focus defense efforts toward the Asia-Pacific region.

Panetta, asked if the U.S. pivot toward the Asia-Pacific region is intended to contain China’s rise, said the purpose of the U.S. effort is to help countries in the region “develop their capabilities so they can deal with challenges.”

The Pentagon is interested in engaging in a “similar relationship with China’s military to confront common challenges and provide for stability and safety of the region,” Panetta said.

After Obama spelled out U.S. strategy toward the Asia- Pacific in November, China in March said it would increase its defense spending 11.2 percent to about 670 billion yuan ($106.4 billion). The Pentagon’s proposed 2013 budget is $525 billion.

Oil and Gas

China has several disagreements with Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan over control of oil- and gas-rich waters and has a lingering territorial dispute with India that erupted into a war in 1962. It also seeks control of Taiwan, which it regards as a renegade province.

Liang said his visit to the U.S. despite recent incidents shows that there’s a “turnover in U.S.-China military” relations.

For nearly two weeks the U.S. and China have negotiated over the future of Chinese human-rights activist Chen Guangcheng, who escaped house arrest and sought shelter at the U.S. embassy in Beijing. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. reached an accord with Chinese authorities to allow him and his family to come to the U.S., where has an offer to be an visiting scholar at New York University.

In September, the Obama administration announced a $5.3 billion arms package to Taiwan, including upgrades to 145 older F-16 fighters. After declining to provide Taiwan with new versions of the jets made by Lockheed Martin Corp. (LMT), the Obama administration on April 27 said it may consider doing so.

Panetta to China

China’s decision not to cancel Liang’s visit over those developments “suggests there’s a little more ballast to the U.S.-China relations” than in the past, Cronin said.

Liang said Panetta had accepted his invitation to visit Beijing in the second half of this year.

Panetta and Liang, appearing together at a Pentagon press briefing, said they also discussed cyber security issues.

Asked about U.S. intelligence reports pointing to cyber attacks and data theft that originate from China, Liang took umbrage at the question, saying that not all attacks on U.S. networks came from China.

“I can hardly agree with the proposition that the cyber attacks directed to the United States are directly coming from China.” he said. “And during the meetings, Secretary Panetta also agreed on my point that we cannot attribute all the cyber attacks” to China.

Avoid ‘Miscalculations’

China, too, is concerned about cyber attacks because it “relates to politics, military and people’s livelihood,” Liang said, citing the example of an attack on a bank that “affects people’s lives.”

Panetta said cyber attacks on both Chinese and U.S. computer networks come from “other countries, hackers and others.” Since the U.S., and China have “technical capabilities in this arena” the two countries must work together to avoid “miscalculations” that may lead to a crisis, Panetta said.

As part of an effort to increase transparency between the two militaries, Liang and his delegation, which includes the head of the People’s Liberation Army’s 2nd Artillery Corps responsible for its nuclear forces, as well as chiefs of the Navy and Air Force, will stop at several U.S. military installations during their visit, according to China’s official Xinhua news agency.

The Chinese delegation plans to go to Fort Benning, Georgia, home of the U.S. Army’s 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division, and Southern Command based in Doral, Florida. They will also meet with non-commissioned officers of the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Forces at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina and visit the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York.