Military ties that don't bind

Spy-plane brinkmanship shows erosion of trust.

In an ironic twist, the Chinese fighter jet that collided with an American spy plane over the South China Sea was once part of a US program to upgrade China's military.

The United States had worked to develop advanced radar for dozens of the Chinese F-8 fighters as part of a broader, decades-long effort to strengthen China's military and intelligence capabilities.

Now, the collision indicates just how far apart Washington and Beijing have grown militarily since the end of the cold war, despite efforts to foster trust between the two armed forces.

If the acrimony surrounding the incident underscores the need for better military-to-military ties to prevent and defuse crises, it also exposes the tenuous political foundation for such ties.

"Unless we can get to some very quick closure on this, it will damage further any possibility of a tolerable, realistic, military-to-military relationship," says Jonathan Pollack, an expert on China's armed forces and chairman of the strategic research department at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I.

Already, the Bush administration has indicated it will take stock of the military relationship with China, which it views as a potential "competitor" rather than as the "strategic partner" envisioned by President Clinton.

A lopsided effort?

In the past two years, Congress has moved to restrict US-China military ties amid allegations of Chinese espionage and growing criticism that the relationship has been lopsided, with the Chinese gaining far more access to US military facilities and equipment than vice versa.

"There is a lack of satisfaction on the US side about [China's] level of transparency and reciprocity," says Michael Swaine, a specialist on the Chinese military at the Rand Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif. "They don't show us what we show them."

For its part, Beijing has shown an ambivalence toward military exchanges, as a string of incidents has inflamed Chinese suspicions about US motives. These include the defection last December of a high-ranking Chinese military intelligence officer, Xu Junping, who had participated in a Harvard University exchange program, as well as the 1999 US bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade. Added to these are growing tensions over US plans for building a missile-defense system and possible US arms sales to Taiwan.

While casting the US as its chief potential adversary, the Chinese military has forged closer ties with Russia. Last year, China received its first Russian-built guided missile destroyer, equipped with antiship missiles capable of confronting US aircraft carriers. It has also bought sophisticated Russian submarines and fighter jets.

Today's situation contrasts sharply with the cold-war era, when Washington and Beijing shared a common enemy in the Soviet Union. For 20 years, during the 1970s and '80s, Washington took steps to strengthen China militarily. Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford conducted intelligence-sharing with China, while President Ronald Reagan sold China military helicopters, radar, and torpedoes, and helped modernize Chinese fighter planes.

All this changed, however, by the early 1990s. China's brutal Army crackdown on Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 led to the severing of US-China military ties, including the F-8 program. Then, the Soviet empire's breakup removed the main strategic rationale for the relationship.

For the past decade, the military relationship has, at best, moved forward in fits and starts, impeded by shallow political support on both sides.

"The military relationship has had this 'on again, off again' quality," says Mr. Pollack. When disputes erupt - such as the US granting of a visa to Taiwan's leader in 1995, or the embassy bombing in 1999 - military exchanges have been "the first thing the Chinese pull the plug on," he says.

Define 'trust'

When the two sides are talking, the relationship consists mainly of high-level, largely ceremonial visits between senior military leaders. In addition, US and Chinese ships have visited each other's ports, and nonsensitive operations, such as humanitarian relief, have been discussed.

Washington's goals were to build confidence in US intentions and to deter Chinese aggression, by means of showing Chinese officers US military facilities, weapons systems, and exercises.

Similarly, Washington negotiated with Beijing a Military Maritime Consultation Agreement, signed in 1998, to prevent inadvertent clashes primarily between warships at sea. Some experts want to expand the accord to include air incidents such as the one last weekend.

While Sino-American military contacts are highly circumscribed, some experts argue that they keep lines of communication open and reduce the odds of miscalculations on either side.

Others, though, say the roller-coaster quality of the military ties - combined with China's reluctance - limits their usefulness. "There is a lot more question here in the United States about the utility of the relationship," says one former US military officer who has specialized in China.

Top US military officials, moreover, privately express frustration over their inability to communicate with the older generation of Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) leaders, many of whom fought in China's Communist revolution and remain relatively close-minded toward the West. Younger PLA officers tend to be better educated and more technically capable, according to a Rand report.

In talks on missile deployments during a visit to China last month, for example, US Admiral Dennis Blair indicated PLA officers had a "simplistic" understanding of US antimissile systems. "I welcome any more-sophisticated discussion," he said.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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