US military officials are in China this week for their first high-level visit there since an international flap in November in which Beijing refused to allow US warships into a port for a long-planned Thanksgiving visit.
The incident baffled Washington and further complicated US relations with the Chinese military, the People's Liberation Army (PLA). But that's only one of many issues for military officials as they work to create clearer lines of communication between the two militaries – generally perceived to be a weaker relationship than the diplomatic or the economic ones.
Adm. Timothy Keating, commander of US Pacific Command, and James Shinn, a newly minted assistant secretary of Defense for the region, left Saturday for a week-long trip to China. Their visit will include high-level meetings in which the US aims to better understand the PLA's decisionmaking process and to try to answer the Pentagon's broader questions about China's rapid military buildup and its intentions toward neighboring Taiwan.
But the elephant in the room may be a series of incidents last fall after the PLA refused to allow the aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk and its accompanying ships into the Hong Kong port for a planned Thanksgiving visit. The PLA said it was a "misunderstanding," and a day later agreed to allow the ships in. But the Kitty Hawk had already departed, US officials say, disappointing more than 300 family members of American sailors who had flown there to celebrate the holiday with their loved ones.
The moves may have been a way for China to show its displeasure after President Bush awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet whom China sees as a separatist, some analysts say. If so, they say, it's one more sign of China's willingness to use the military relationship with the US for political purposes.
It's not clear American officials will ever get to the bottom of Chinese motivations. When Admiral Keating and Mr. Shinn meet with Chinese military officials, Keating will try to get past it, but the incident is likely to come up.
"His goal is to get beyond that," says an official with US Pacific Command who didn't want to be named because of the sensitivity of the issue. "He may ask the question, but he doesn't want to dwell on that."
Problems with port visits are symptomatic of larger questions about why China's military does what it does. China has built more ships and submarines – at a pace faster than the US could build them, members of Congress have noted – and last year it unveiled a sleek jet fighter, called the Jian-10, capable of firing precision-guided missiles.
But the top concern of American officials is China's intentions toward Taiwan. The US is committed to the defense of Taiwan, which split from China in 1949, in the event Beijing decides to invade the country to take it back.
That's all the more reason to improve the military relationship, says the Pacific Command official. "It makes sense that we get the mil-to-mil relationship caught up to the economic and diplomatic relationships," says the official. "We still have concerns, and that's part of reducing the miscalculation."
A missile buildup
Meanwhile, as China prepares to host the summer Olympic Games, the US sees the country as a strategic military competitor – and perhaps a growing threat. China appears to be gunning for regional superiority at the very least, expanding to 900 the number of short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan, but it is also developing an intercontinental-range ballistic missile that suggests an interest in attaining broader influence.
Another US concern is that the Chinese have reportedly been selling fast boats to the Navy of Iran's Revolutionary Guard that are similar to, if not the same as, those used in last week's encounter with US warships transiting the Strait of Hormuz near the Persian Gulf. Diplomatic officials are concerned about China's sales of the boats to another country whose intentions regarding the US remain unclear.
Many believe the "mil-to-mil" relationship cooled after a 2001 incident in which a US Navy reconnaissance plane was forced to land on Hainan Island after colliding with a Chinese fighter. Two dozen sailors on board were held for days before being released.
Daniel Blumenthal, a senior analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a think tank in Washington, says despite that, US military officials continued to quietly engage China. Still, he adds, the China is signaling that it has a military to be reckoned with.
Mr. Blumenthal is not optimistic that US military officials will gain much insight into China's military decisionmaking, because the country is typically reluctant to share much.
"I don't see much hope for a friendly and substantive mil-to-mil relationship," he says.
Mr. Shinn, a China expert who was sworn in to his new post Thursday, told Congress last month he is as perplexed by China's military actions as anyone. "The problem that we have is divining their intent," he told the Senate Armed Services Committee. "That's one of the reasons for the great ... care and vigilance with which we have to deal with the Chinese military."