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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
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.
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.