US, China cautiously rekindle military ties

President Bush's visit to Beijing this week signals a wary renewal of US-Sino relations.

After more than a year's hiatus, the Bush administration is seriously weighing a resumption of high-level military talks with China - including a strategic dialogue on new priorities and concerns arising from the war on terror.

A new round of military consultations - the first since late 2000 - could be agreed upon as early as President Bush's visit to China this week, defense officials say. Still, wariness of China remains strong in the Pentagon, which, under Bush, has severely restricted US-China military-to-military ties.

The debate over military relations reflects a larger strategic quandary posed by China, which Washington has embraced as a partner in the war on terrorism even as US officials continue to criticize Beijing as a stubborn weapons proliferator and potential long-term military threat.

On one hand, the anti-terror campaign offers new opportunities for US-China cooperation. Washington has praised China's intelligence sharing and diplomatic backing for the war, and plans to station an FBI officer in Beijing. It also values China's help in easing tensions between Pakistan and India, as well as in restraining North Korea.

Obstacles to détente

Meanwhile, however, China continues to thwart US goals by spreading arms technology to regimes that sponsor terrorists. According to the CIA, China remains a key source of missile related technology for several countries (including Pakistan and Iran) in violation of Beijing's November 2000 pledge not to assist countries seeking to develop nuclear-capable ballistic missiles.

For its part, Beijing shares an interest in reviving military ties and broadly improving Sino-US relations. Yet it also has concerns about the post-Sept. 11 posture of the United States. Beijing has watched with alarm, for example, the expansion of the US troops around Central and South Asia.

Beijing is also suspicious that the United States' revival of military ties with India is directed at curbing China's influence in the region. This month, Washington agreed to sell India military hardware and to hold joint exercises, Jane's Defence Weekly reported.

"It's a kind of gritting of teeth," says Bates Gill, head of Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution here. China has muted its public statements so as not to appear opposed to the war on terror, he says. "Given the outrageous nature of Sept. 11 and US support [for the war] China is not going to stand in the way of that."

So far, US military ties with China have been severely curtailed under President Bush, who has boosted weapons sales and strengthened military links to Taiwan while dubbing Beijing a "strategic competitor" - in contrast to the "strategic partner" envisioned by his predecessor.

Tensions between the two militaries were exacerbated last April, when China detained the crew of a US Navy EP-3E plane for 11 days after a mid-air collision led to the loss of a Chinese fighter pilot. Last May, the Pentagon concluded a review of the Clinton policy of broad military contacts with China and instituted a case-by-case approval process, reducing the number of exchanges to a handful.

In recent weeks, however, signs have emerged of a cautious rekindling of the relationship. Last week, a "capstone" delegation of new US generals and admirals left for an Asian tour that includes visits to Chinese military universities and installations.

Cautious handshakes

Now, both Washington and Beijing are actively considering setting dates for a new round of annual Defense Consultative Talks (DCT). Since 1997, these meetings have brought senior Chinese and US officials together to hold a strategic dialogue and plan future military exchanges.

"We are positive [about] the resumption of military dialogue," says a Chinese official here.

Yet Pentagon officials make it clear that tougher standards will apply to any US-China military contacts, which, under new defense department guidelines ,must promote and protect US interests. "We seek to ensure that our military contacts with China serve our national interests, that they provide transparency and reciprocity," says Pentagon spokesperson Lt. Cdr. Jeff Davis.

Transparency has been a problem since military ties began in the 1980s, say officials. They complain that China has limited US access to Chinese Army officials and restricted visits to a few "show bases."

Generous hosts

The United States, by contrast, has allowed Chinese officers to visit "almost every type of military facility and weapons system, from ICBM sites to aircraft carriers to fighter and bomber bases," writes Kenneth Allen, an analyst at the CNA Corp., a defense think tank in Alexandria, Va.

Partly as a result, under the FY 2000/2001 defense authorization bill Congress prohibited access by China to a broad range of US military functions, ranging from joint combat operations and advanced technology to logistics. Peter Brookes, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, helped draft the legislation as a congressional aide and advised then that military ties with China "should be of a 'minimalist' nature."

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