US, China militaries talk more: Does that make world safer?

China's second-ranking PLA officer is visiting the US this week as the two powers try to put relations on a more cordial footing. But mutual suspicion is likely to remain strong as China expands its naval presence in the Pacific.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (l.) and Xu Caihou, vice chairman of China's Central Military Commission, listen to national anthems during a welcome ceremony held at the Pentagon in Arlington, Virginia, on Tuesday.
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After a long spell of barely disguised animosity, American and Chinese military chiefs are seeking to put their relations on a more cordial footing, in line with ties between their civilian bosses.

Gen. Xu Caihou, the second-ranking officer in the People's Liberation Army, is visiting a string of key American military installations this week in the highest-level trip by a Chinese general to the United States since 2006.

Few observers, though, expect the two countries' recently renewed military-to-military discussions – which General Xu endorsed at a meeting with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates Tuesday – to resolve the fundamental mistrust between the two powers.

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Xu's weeklong visit "is an important first step to rebuild this relationship," says Ted Galen Carpenter, vice president of the Cato Institute in Washington. "But the underlying suspicions are probably too great to be cleared up for a very long time."

Heading off escalation of incidents

Instead, talks are likely to focus on technical agreements to prevent incidents blowing up into major conflict. Washington and Beijing exchanged angry words earlier this year when Chinese vessels swarmed a US Navy submarine surveillance ship in the South China Sea.

Such clashes are likely to occur with increasing frequency as China expands its naval presence in its coastal waters and beyond into the western Pacific, shifting the balance of power in the region.

"China is going to be a major military player in the Asia Pacific region," US Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said during a recent visit to Beijing. "As our two militaries increasingly operate in proximity of one another," they need to "establish procedures and rules of the road … so that we can avoid crises."

Washington will probably be disappointed, however, if it hopes that discussions with Chinese military leaders will assuage US worries about the purpose of China's military buildup.

Xu assured a US audience this week that China's development of ballistic missiles, an advanced submarine fleet, anti-satellite missiles, and a top-flight Air Force was "entirely for self-defense. We will not and could not threaten any other country," he insisted.

US military planners, however, are especially concerned by Beijing's progress in developing missiles that could knock out US satellites. "Communications are at the core of how our military operates," points out Richard Bush, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington.

Washington would also like an explanation of "why China's military modernization in general seems designed to thwart American military intervention anywhere in the western Pacific," especially around Taiwan, adds Dr. Carpenter of the Cato Institute.

The Chinese, meanwhile, have their own suspicions about US intentions, and have protested repeatedly about US surveillance vessels patrolling close to China's coastline.

Beijing is also nervous about the US military bases surrounding China in Japan, South Korea, Afghanistan, and Kyrgyzstan.

"China is very sensitive about the pattern of US military deployment in the region" says Xu Guangyu, a retired PLA general who now works at the China Arms Control and Disarmament Association, a military think tank in Beijing affiliated with the Foreign Ministry.

Upset with US arms sales to Taiwan

China is particularly wary of US arms sales to Taiwan, which is seen here as a renegade province that must be unified with the mainland. The US government is bound by the 1979 Taiwan Relations Act to provide the island with a sufficient self-defense capability.

It was a $6.5 billion weapons deal with Taiwan last year that caused Beijing to break off military-to-military links with Washington, and any further such sale could again freeze the nascent talks.

Should Washington accede to Taipei's request for 66 upgraded F-16 fighter jets, for example, "there would be big trouble, very serious trouble," warns retired General Xu. The Obama administration has so far shelved the request, in order not to disturb relations with Beijing.

Stop asking for transparency

China is also resentful of Washington's repeated calls for increased transparency about its military budget and goals, which US officials say would help reassure them about Beijing's intentions.

In an angry outburst two years ago, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Qin Gang responded to one such call, by former US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, by asking: "If someone always tears through your underwear, saying 'let me see what's inside,' how would you feel? Wouldn't you want to call the police?"

"Asking for Chinese military transparency is ridiculous," argues Wang Jinling, head of San Lue, an independent military think tank here. "The American military is the general drillmaster for all modern armies. It's like rich people asking poor people to compare their treasure. The poor one has nothing to show, so he uses secrecy as an excuse not to play the game."

At the same time, he points out, no less an authority than the ancient military strategist Sun Tzu, author of "The Art of War," wrote that "all military affairs are based on deception."

"China sees more value in disguising its plans and intentions than in transparency" adds Dr. Bush.

Since there are no indications that Beijing is ready to halt its development of antisatellite weapons, or of the world's first shore-based missile capable of hitting a moving vessel 1,000 miles away, "the amount of reassurance that could happen" at military talks "is limited," cautions Adam Segal, a China expert at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York. "There will always be a great deal of uncertainty."

Neither side, however, wants minor clashes at sea to escalate into crises that could endanger the two countries' overall relationship, which President Obama described recently as Washington's most important.

So although the new talks may not reveal much about Beijing's vision of its military future, nor reassure China about US military maneuvers, "some practical things to do with crisis management will most likely emerge," says Dr. Segal.

"The Obama administration might hope for more," says Carpenter, "but if the atmosphere in military relations can be improved, that will be a modest but measurable achievement."

Where are diamond sales sparkling? You guessed it: China.

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