U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relations

January 10, 2011

Economic and security issues will share top billing during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington later in the month. Experts in both countries and across the partisan divide have stressed the need to move away from the on-again, off-again cycle that has recently defined U.S.-China military relations. Broader and deeper relationships between  military and security officials can reduce misunderstandings and miscommunications – and clarify intentions and capabilities. They also offer an opportunity to heighten Chinese contributions to peace and stability in Asia and globally.

Today’s agreement between Secretary Gates and China’s Defense Minister Liang Guanglie to pursue military-to-military exchanges, including a trip to the U.S. by the Chinese counterpart of chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Admiral Michael Mullen, is a welcome step toward a relationship that is predictable and based on mutual respect and understanding – and that within which the U.S. can pursue its core interests and values. 

U.S.-China defense talks pave the way for improved military to military dialogue.  Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie concluded a round of defense talks on Monday as part of Gates’ week-long trip to the region. “‘We are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chance of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation, it is important that our military-to-military ties are solid, consistent and not subject to shifting political winds,’ Gates said Monday.  Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie said their meeting was ‘positive, constructive and productive,’ and said the Chinese fully agreed on the importance of setting ‘sustained and reliable’ military-to-military relations, using Gates’ words from one day earlier. The event marks a new beginning after a rough year between the two sides during which China protested U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and canceled a Gates visit last June, Washington cajoled Beijing to take stronger actions against North Korean military aggression, and the U.S. ramped up military exercises in the Yellow Sea,” Stars and Stripes reported this morning. 

The talks offer a starting point for improved military to military relations and heightened transparency.  Stars and Stripes explained that “China saw Gates’ visit this week as a chance to set a cordial tone before Presidents Hu Jintao and Barack Obama meet in Washington next week. On Monday, Gates said China was receptive to nearly every U.S. desire to move forward with the relationship. To that end, the defense leaders announced that Chief of the General Staff Gen. Chen Bingde, counterpart to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen, will visit the United States this year. Gates said he hoped his own visit would result in progress toward a formal strategic security dialogue – regular and standing talks on nuclear weapons, missile defense, space and cybersecurity issues. Liang promised to hold joint talks to discuss the idea in the first half of this year. The sides also agreed to consider joint military activities, Gates said, including maritime search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counterpiracy and counterterrorism. But no schedule of exchanges, exercises or meetings was announced.”  [AP, 1/10/11. Stars and Stripes, 1/10/11]

“No reason for China to be a adversary, and particularly in the military sense.” En route to the region, Gates put military-to-military cooperation in the larger strategic context:  “There’s no reason for China to be an adversary, and particularly in a military sense, for the United States. So I think looking for ways to be constructive, to be more open, to better understand what each other’s intentions are with some of these capabilities, this is the way that sovereign nations deal with each other.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Michael Mullen, recently explained the importance of such cooperation at an event at the Center for American Progress: “To be sure, as many nations develop, they invest in their military but with greater military power must come greater responsibility, greater cooperation and just as important, greater transparency.  When you talk transparency, particularly on security and defense matters, we inevitably come to the issue of military exchange. What the U.S., frankly, seeks, a sustained and reliable military-to-military relationship with China, is hardly unusual.”  Michael Schiffer, Deputy Assistant Secretary for East Asia in the Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs explained, “We are not under any illusions about how challenging the tasks ahead-establishing sustained, reliable, and a continuous military-to-military relationship is going to be. But we are committed to rebuilding the military-to-military relationship and giving it the durability necessary so that when those differences inevitably surface between our two countries, the military-to-military relationship is not to be suspended but instead it is to be enhanced. Only then will we be able to reduce mistrust, build habits of cooperation, and work toward greater understanding of the long-term intentions of both of our countries.” [Robert Gates, 1/8/11. Michael Mullen, 12/1/10. Michael Schiffer, 1/6/11]

Building on common interests – nuclear weapons, piracy, terrorism — while seeing divergences clearly.  In a recent interview on PBS’s Newshour, Gates explained his goals: “One is to open a dialogue on issues where we have common strategic interests, whether it’s instability or provocative behavior on the part of North Korea, whether it’s Iran developing weapons of mass destruction, nuclear weapons, piracy, terrorism.  And what I’m — what I’m hoping we can do is look at some opportunities where we have common interests, for example, counterpiracy or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, where our militaries actually can work together and get to know each other.  And I think that kind of collaboration creates the opportunity, as partners, to do some constructive things.”

At the same time, as Reuters writes, Obama will “seek reassurances from Hu about China’s long-term military ambitions — some U.S. officials are concerned about Chinese spending on its military as its economy booms — and what they see as Chinese aggression in the region and secrecy about its plans.”  And China for its part “is irritated by the U.S. support for Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province, and the U.S. military presence in its region. The U.S. has permanent military bases on China’s doorstep, and the U.S. Navy regularly patrols Pacific waters that China claims as restricted. The U.S. also bans the export of some technology and hardware to China and subjects China to an annual, public accounting of Chinese military power that is often highly critical.” [Robert Gates, 1/6/11. Reuters, 1/9/11. AP, 1/8/10]

What We’re Reading

Visiting Persian Gulf states, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says revised estimates of Iran’s ability to build a bomb should not mean easing sanctions and other efforts.

The Obama administration is weighing options for an early reward to Sudan’s government if a referendum that would allow the southern part of the country to secede concludes without a hitch.

Bulldozers began tearing down a former hotel building to make way for a Jewish housing development in an Arab neighborhood of East Jerusalem, pushing ahead with a contentious project that has raised concerns in Washington.

Thousands of people turned out in Karachi to show their support for Pakistan’s current blasphemy laws and warn the government against changing them.

A prominent Iranian human rights lawyer who defended opposition activists has been convicted of security offenses and sentenced to 11 years in prison, her husband said.

The militant Basque separatist group ETA declared a permanent cease-fire in what it called a firm step toward ending its bloody decades-long independence fight, but the Spanish government quickly demanded it disband outright.

Brazil warned that the world is on course for a full-blown “trade war” as it stepped up its rhetoric against exchange rate manipulation.

Armed Chinese soldiers infiltrated Indian territory and threatened construction workers near a disputed border in September, Indian media reported.

The Algerian government said it will reduce tax and import duties on some staples in a bid to end days of deadly clashes between police and rioters protesting food prices in the North African country.

Belarus’s government steps up its pressure on opposition figures, investigating whether to take custody of 3-year-old Danil Sannikov after the arrest of his parents, Andrei Sannikov, a former presidential candidate, and Irina Khalip, a journalist.

Commentary of the Day

David Ignatius says the Iranian nuclear program has been slowed by a combination of sanctions, sabotage and Iran’s own technical troubles, adding time for the West to respond to any Iranian push for a bomb.

Ryo Takahashi writes North Korea’s decades-long disregard of human rights requires attention.

 

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