Chinese military leaders visit US. What do they want?

China suspended military ties with the Pentagon early last year, after the US made an arms sale to Taiwan. Now, eight Chinese generals will meet with their American counterparts.

Andy Wong/Reuters
China's Chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) General Chen Bingde gestures in this 2008 photo. General Chen and seven other generals are leading the PLA's first trip to the United States since Beijing severed military ties in 2010.

It’s a historical first, a concert that America’s top Army officer estimates was 30 years in the making.

The Chinese People’s Liberation Army band is on its first visit to the US, making a joint appearance Monday night with the US Army band at Washington’s Kennedy Center.

“We think this is a great opportunity for the two militaries’ armies ... to come together and to begin to get to know each other,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Army Chief of Staff, said.

It is no secret that tension between America and China has been growing along with China’s military ambitions and US arms sales to Taiwan. The hope is that what has jokingly been dubbed the “battle of the bands” will be a step toward helping to build a “strong, stable” partnership, Dempsey said.

The concert was a prelude to a visit this week by Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, along with seven other generals. It is the PLA’s first trip to America since China suspended military ties with the Pentagon early last year, after the US sold more than $6 billion in arms to Taiwan.

The question now is how much the military leaders can realistically hope to accomplish, given US concerns about the pace of China’s military buildup – and Chinese suspicions about American intentions in the Pacific.

In the past year, the Pentagon leadership has expressed growing concern about China’s cyberespionage forays and its robust Navy, including the possible launch of its first aircraft carrier later this year.

These trends are troubling to US military officials, who are seeking to expand American military presence in the Pacific.

“We’re very anxious to make sure that no one thinks we’re walking away from here,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen said last November, “because we’re not.”

Chinese efforts to flex its muscle in recent years have at times sent shockwaves through the Pentagon. China’s successful ballistic missile shoot-down of one of its own orbiting satellites in 2007 was a feat widely seen as an ominous move toward the militarization of space. “I’m increasingly concerned about where China seems to be heading with that,” Mullen told the Monitor.

During this visit, leaders on both sides are seeking to strike a more conciliatory tone, especially since it’s on the heels of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s first state visit to the US in January.

Pentagon officials are particularly interested in opening lines of communication with their military counterparts and establishing crisis communication protocols for operating in the seas around China.

Chinese officials refer to these areas as their “near seas” – areas to which they are “increasingly seeking to prevent unwanted access,” says Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“They believe that vessels who operate in the seas must secure the coastal state’s approval to be there,” Ms. Glaser says. “The United States has a different interpretation.”

While the Pentagon would like to see crisis communication protocols for operating in those seas, “the Chinese attitude is, ‘You don’t belong here, so why would we want to make you feel safe?’ ” says Dean Cheng, research fellow for Chinese political and security affairs at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

“The US attitude is, ‘We’re going to operate here. Why don’t we figure out how to make sure misunderstandings don’t get out of control?’ ” Mr. Cheng adds. “If there is no understanding, the US attitude is, ‘We’re still going to be there.’ ”

For its part, China wants the US to stop selling arms to Taiwan. “When you see all the Chinese talking points – about mutual respect and benefits – they all come back to, ‘Don’t sell arms to Taiwan,’ ” Cheng says. “So in some ways, it’s nice and simple.”

Such arms sales are up to Congress to determine, however. “It’s not as if Mullen can say, ‘Absolutely, right,’ ” Cheng adds.

For these reasons and others, “I am under the impression that neither the Chinese nor the American sides are very optimistic about sustained military-to-military contact beyond the bare minimum for stability purposes,” Cheng says.

“Throwing epaulets on the table and going outside to have a fistfight isn’t going to happen,” says Cheng. “And yet neither side seems particularly interested in substantive talk.” The result, he reckons, is “a standstill.”

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