BEIJING — Twelve months of friendly American diplomatic overtures and weeks of private warnings were not enough. Since Washington announced last week a $6.4 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, an island Beijing regards as a renegade province, China has vented its anger just as fiercely as ever.
Deflating United States hopes that this time it would be different, China immediately suspended contacts between the two countries’ militaries, just as it did in 2008 reacting to a previous US arms deal with Taipei.
The move disappointed US military planners who had looked forward to better and more stable relations with their Chinese counterparts.
“I’d hoped that in the future we could shield the military-to-military relationship from the political ups and downs,” Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Monday. “I think that we have a lot to learn from each other.”
Mr. Gates’s own planned trip to China this year is now up in the air as a result of the Chinese decision.
So are a range of activities that mostly happen in the shadows, such as study visits by Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officers to US universities such as the National Defense University in Washington, reciprocal study tours by US officers at Chinese institutions, and naval exercises. The Pentagon has been building such ties quietly, as it warily pursues engagement with a potential enemy.
Gates said he hoped the suspension would be temporary, because “stability is enhanced by contact between our military and a greater understanding of each others’ strategies.”
Engagement, however wary
In testimony last month to the House Armed Services Committee, the new head of US Pacific Command, Adm. Robert Willard, warned that China’s “stated goals of a defense-oriented military capability … appear incompatible with the extent of sophisticated weaponry China produces today.
“Reconciling these two can only occur through continuous frank conversations and mutual actions within a strong and mature military-to-military relationship,” Willard said. Such a relationship, he added, “does not yet exist with the People’s Liberation Army.”
The Chinese military is also keen to maintain contacts, says Yan Xuetong, head of the Institute of International Studies at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “China wants to know more about American military details,” he says, “and the talks have some diplomatic use to give the US more confidence in China.”
The public relationship between the Chinese and US military is conducted through a series of joint bodies meeting every six months or so, addressing issues ranging from strategic global matters to the safety of seamen. Four such meetings have been held over the past 11 months; their future is now uncertain.
Last June, for example, at a session of Defense Consultative Talks, Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy raised US concerns about the way Chinese vessels had harassed US ships earlier in the year in disputed waters off the Chinese coast. In one incident, a Chinese submarine damaged the underwater sonar array towed by a US destroyer.
The Pentagon has also conducted its relationship with the PLA through visits by senior officers. The second most senior Chinese general, Xu Caihou, visited a number of US bases last October, and the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, was due to visit China later this year until China’s announcement Saturday.
Friction over the years
Congress, however, has placed limits on military contacts with China, banning “any exchange or contact [that] would create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure” of PLA officers to US military assets.
Though Beijing has complained about this constraint, saying it narrows the field for cooperation, Willard told the House Armed Services Committee last month that contacts so far have been too modest to be affected.
“No exchanges today approach the point where the provisions would prohibit the activity,” he said, reiterating what Gates had said earlier.
China has also publicly chafed at reports such as the US National Intelligence Strategy, released last September, that branded Beijing one of the greatest threats to US national interests.
“I don’t think that China has really got anything out of these military contacts” says Professor Yan. “They have not made the Americans think twice about their arms embargo against China, nor about abandoning their military hostility to China, nor about military intelligence gathering along our sea border, nor about arms sales to Taiwan. So what’s the purpose?”
This is not the first time that military-to-military contacts have been suspended. Washington broke them off in 1989, after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, and resumed them only in 1993. US arms sales to China, however, were not resumed and an arms embargo remains in force.
China broke off military relations for eight months in 1999 after US planes bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, and again in 2008 for five months, when the Bush administration announced an arms sale to Taiwan.
The Chinese move is not expected to change Beijing’s decision, announced last week, to join the international flotilla of naval vessels doing antipirate patrols in the Gulf of Aden – the most concrete example of US-Chinese military cooperation.