As the war in Iraq began, the Pentagon embedded a Chinese reporter for five days on the USS Kitty Hawk. Some officers thought it odd to invite a reporter from a state that many see as the greatest long-term military threat to the US. But the Pentagon felt a close look by China at an aircraft carrier was a good deterrent.
Chinese PLA officers have ridden US fighter jets, boarded nuclear submarines, sat in on classes at West Point, and visited the strategic command at Cheyenne Mountain. But US military visits to China have been mostly a matter of seeing parades or an empty base.
As Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld arrives here Tuesday for his first official visit to China, some analysts hope the two sides will become more "transparent and reciprocal."
Chinese leaders approved an unprecedented visit for Secretary Rumsfeld to China's missile-command center at the Second Artillery Corps headquarters outside Beijing, probably the most sensitive base of operations a US military leader has visited in recent times. The invitation is a shift from a few weeks ago, when Adm. William Fallon, head of US Pacific forces, was denied access to naval ports. Even so, Rumsfeld will not be allowed to visit the Western Hills national military command center.
Mr. Rumsfeld's trip here, much sought by Beijing, in fact depended on Chinese willingness to offer significant access, US officials say. For the Pentagon, China's military progress has been so rapid, and its political developments and regional intentions so unclear, that security in the Pacific - and avoidance of misunderstandings - depend on greater cooperation, including military visits, hotlines, and what Rumsfeld calls "straightforward" talk about new weapons systems and strategy.
"The US is no longer willing to trade high-tech military briefings ... for a dog and pony show," says one US official. "I think the Chinese now acknowledge that message."
China's military is at a transitional moment, according to a July Defense Department report. China has developed the third- or fourth-largest military in the world. Monday, its military-based space program landed two men from earth orbit. China has a strategic nuclear force and its navy is moving into the open seas. In the past two years, China has unveiled a new attack submarine and a new light battleship - a total surprise for US intelligence.
Many US strategists, including Admiral Fallon, argue that a military clash with China is not inevitable, despite the fact that the two forces are eyeing each other with greater wariness. But "transparency" has grown in importance for US generals and admirals, as well as pilots and submarine commanders, because the margin for mistakes in a "Taiwan scenario" - the hottest flashpoint - is getting smaller. China's main military modernization is designed to fight an offensive battle to capture Taiwan.
Without transparency, some military operations chiefs say, it is harder to know when one side or the other is bluffing, especially amid tensions. "Western forces have a hard time understanding Asian forces, how they think and act," says Michael Boera, the wing commander of the 36th Air Expeditionary Wing in Guam. "It is a different culture, and we need to guard against misunderstandings that we aren't ready for."
"Rumsfeld's trip shows the US is interested in cooperating with the Chinese in Northeast Asia," says Air Force Lt. Col. Carl Baker at Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu. "That is a big shift in thinking from questioning China's legitimacy."
"I think it would make some of us feel a little better if the Chinese would be more forthcoming about their intentions," he adds. "They claim not to be developing a blue water navy, but clearly they are."
At the end of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, both militaries walked back from the standoff through dozens of mutual visits. But the Soviets essentially capitulated. In China, by contrast, the sense of national pride is growing.
This summer a Russian-Chinese military exercise off Russia's east coast was billed by China as an exercise against Xinjiang terrorists. But it was clearly designed to show a Taiwan offensive operation by China, a Pentagon strategist points out, adding, "wouldn't it be nice if we had been invited."
Military exchanges between the US and China were once robust. The US was eager to help develop China as a counterweight to the Soviet Union. By the early 1990s, the US had some 80 people in Shenyang, assisting the Chinese in rebuilding their Air Force. The US also lent a hand in improving military and civilian air-traffic control.
But relations started to fray in mid- to late 1995, when China test-fired missiles in the Taiwan Strait, partly to protest independence-minded Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui's visit to the United States. (Even as Rumsfeld meets with President Hu Jintao in Beijing, Mr. Lee is back in the US, speaking as a private citizen.)And in 2001, after a Chinese fighter jet forced down a US EP-3 spy plane off the island of Hainan, military relations went into a freeze.
As China continues to rise, the issue of transparency will get further attention, analysts say. Asia's emerging powerhouse has an ingrained culture of secrecy, and little tradition of openness in public affairs.
Congressional moderates questioned China's takeover bid of US oil supplier Unocal last spring, for example, partly due to an inability to "see" who owns Chinese firms. China's secrecy and initial denials of the nature and extent of the 2003 SARS epidemic, which had global consequences, was roundly criticized by health officials. Beijing has taken a similar tack on bird flu. State secrets can be interpreted to cover a range of information considered public in modern states: In the past year, nearly a dozen journalists and bloggers have gotten sentences of up to 10 years in jail for violating state secrets like e-mailing the content of provincial newsroom meetings.
A central reason China has not always been willing to be transparent or reciprocal is that many of their capabilities and operations have been crude, analysts say. At one point, an elderly Admiral Rickover, father of the nuclear submarine, visited a Chinese base and made disparaging comments, deeply hurting the feelings of his host.
Not showing under-par bases or military hardware may be a strategic choice by China, some analysts say, as it can mislead an opponent as to strengths and weaknesses.