Gates’ Trip Not Likely to Thaw U.S.-China Military Ties, Analysts Say

By Sandra I. Erwin
Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ bridge-building trip to China this week offers proof that bilateral military ties are improving after contacts were frozen for much of 2010.
But Gates’ high-level talks with China’s military leaders are still not going to fundamentally change the distrust and misgivings that have stood in the way of military-to-military dialogue between the two nations, experts said Jan. 10.
“There is still suspicion and reluctance to engage seriously on this issue [of military-to-military talks],” said Phillip Saunders, director of the Center for Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University.
The Chinese government still harbors deep doubts about the Obama administration’s attempts to engage in military cooperation and information sharing, Saunders said at a Washington, D.C., forum hosted by the Nixon Center.
Chinese leaders see a U.S. effort to give them a greater voice in international cooperation as a covert attempt to get China to buy into a U.S.-dominated global power structure, said Saunders.
Gates’ trip comes in the wake of alarming news reports in the United States about China’s military buildup, its new stealth fighter and burgeoning cyber-warfare capabilities.
But the most immediate concern of the Obama administration was to make sure that Gates’ trip would help create a more agreeable setting for Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to the White House next week, Saunders noted.
“If the Secretary hadn’t gone to China, this [a freeze in military-to-military talks] would have been a big U.S. talking point in the media coverage,” he said. The defense secretary's talks are "being squeezed in,” said Saunders. Because of the short time between Gates’ trip and the Hu-Obama summit, there will be no opportunity to assess whether any substantive progress will have been made in military relations by next week, Saunders added. “I don’t see a fundamental shift in the suspicion that they have, or the view that the 'mil to mil' relationship is a tactical lever that they can use to try to get concessions on issues they care about.”
Concessions sought by the Chinese include what are regarded as non-starters on the U.S. side: An end of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a ceasing of surveillance operations in international waters off the coast of China, and revisions to the 2000 National Defense Authorization Act that restricts the type of information that may be shared with the Chinese in military-to-military contact.
“I see no hope in the near future of two of those changing, or even the third, ever changing, given the composition of the Congress,” said James Mulvenon, vice president of Defense Group, Inc.’s intelligence division.
An assumption by the Chinese military leadership that the United States will not cede ground on any of these top priorities has “automatically built in an escape hatch that allows them to go right back to the pattern of canceling and shutting down the 'mil to mil' in times of crisis,” Mulvenon said.
One of the bright spots in Gates’ visit to China are his talks with the leaders of the Army’s Second Artillery Corps headquarters outside Beijing, Mulvenon said. Contact with the Second Artillery, which is considered China’s nuclear command center, is significant because that organization would potentially own the anti-ship ballistic missiles that the U.S. Navy fears might be capable of hitting aircraft carriers. Second Artillery also is likely to command anti-satellite weapons. The United States has been mostly interested in gauging China’s nuclear weapon capabilities, but the Chinese have been reluctant to even open the door to any nukes-related dialogue because they regard nuclear weapons as an asymmetric U.S. advantage.
Gates has, however, achieved modest progress, Saunders said. He signed off on the establishment of a U.S.- China working group to figure out how to engage in a serious dialogue on strategic issues.

Topics: Defense Department, International

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