May 14, 2011

Chinese Generals' Tour of American Military Outposts A Beacon Of Thawing Tension

Eight high-ranking Chinese generals will meet their counterparts at the Pentagon and tour the United States this week in the latest sign that the once-frozen military relationship between the two superpowers has begun to thaw.
A delegation led by Gen. Chen Bingde, the chief of general staff for the People’s Liberation Army, will visit several U.S. military installations and make sightseeing stops in Washington, Los Angeles and the Grand Canyon during a week-long swing across the country, U.S. military officials said Friday.

The Pentagon is portraying the visit as a breakthrough in its attempts to resume military relations with China, which Beijing angrily severed early last year after the Obama administration announced a $6 billion arms deal with Taiwan. While economic and political ties between Beijing and Washington have also been fraught with problems, the Chinese have been even more reluctant to engage on military issues amid a huge buildup in the power and reach of their armed forces.

To encourage the thaw, the Pentagon will be giving their Chinese guests a royal dose of hospitality. After arriving Sunday evening, the Chinese delegation will tour Mount Vernon and the Mall in downtown Washington on Monday and attend a reception at the home of Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mullen will formally receive Chen with full military honors in a ceremony Tuesday at Fort Myer.

It has been seven years since a chairman of the Joint Chiefs last met with his four-star Chinese counterpart. Chen is also scheduled to meet with Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton on Wednesday.
The Pentagon hopes the tenor of the visit contrasts with a trip that Gates took to Beijing in January. After rebuffing his requests to visit for several months, the Chinese finally relented but had a few undiplomatic surprises in store, including an unannounced test flight of a stealth fighter jet that took place a few hours before Gates met with President Hu Jintao.
The PLA generals will also visit the Norfolk Naval Station, Fort Stewart, Ga., Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada and the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, Calif.

U.S. military officials said they weren’t kowtowing to the Chinese but that their primary objective was to open basic lines of communication with the PLA. Otherwise, they said, there is a risk that small security conflicts in the Pacific region could quickly balloon into major crises.

“What we’re really looking for is a relationship that there is some mutual transparency and trust developed between us so that if there is some incident or some disagreement, it’s a relationship we can depend on and weather a storm,” said a senior U.S. military official, speaking on condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon.

Despite the recent thaw, some analysts said the PLA is less interested than the Pentagon in getting along. While the Americans assume that Beijing would want to avoid having a military misunderstanding mushroom into a full-blown crisis, the PLA would actually prefer to keep things vague so that the U.S. military thinks twice about its actions in Asia, said Patrick Cronin, senior director of the Asia-Pacific Security program at the Center for a New American Security.

“We’re assuming they’ll eventually see that their larger interests are in cooperation,” Cronin said. “But the assumptions are just a bit too naive sometimes.”