Knives being sharpened behind Sino-US smiles

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 October, 2003, 12:00am

When Major-General Chen Xiaogong arrived in Washington to begin his assignment as China's military attache in the autumn of 2001, he thought he would be treated as a friend and with respect.

After all, the fluent English speaker knew the American capital well and was liked in Pentagon circles from his time as a visiting fellow at the US National Defence University and the influential Washington think-tank Atlantic Council in the late 1980s.

But when General Chen completed his two-year stint recently and returned to Beijing to become the PLA's representative to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' newly established National Security Bureau, he was far from happy.

The reason? US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld had ordered a halt to all contact with the Chinese military in the aftermath of the Hainan island spy plane incident in April 2001.

For more than a year, sources said, Mr Rumsfeld and his deputies had rejected General Chen's numerous requests to visit the Pentagon and meet US officers.

Mr Rumsfeld even denied him the diplomatic protocol of presenting his credentials. Like ambassadors, the senior military attache is normally granted a ceremonial meeting with the host nation's secretary or minister of defence.

In the autumn of last year, Mr Rumsfeld finally approved limited contact with the People's Liberation Army following China's support for the US war against terrorism. General Chen entered the Pentagon for the first time as attache with a PLA delegation in December last year. He was also later given more access to US officials.

But for General Chen, the gestures were too little, too late.

'Chen was still angry. He understood the insult,' said a US source who met the general in the months before he returned to Beijing.

General Chen's unhappy experiences would serve as an interesting footnote in the tumultuous Sino-US military relations.

When Minister of Defence General Cao Gangchuan rolls into Washington this week, Mr Rumsfeld will lay down the red carpet and deploy the guard of honour.

Most significantly, sources said, the Pentagon will use General Cao's visit to announce a new series of exchanges with the PLA, including naval port visits and the resumption of the important defence consultative talks - meetings between high-ranking military leaders.

Both sides will officially play up General Cao's visit and the exchanges programme as part of a continuing effort to boost mutual trust and respect between the two militaries. Just last month, two US naval warships visited the headquarters of the PLA's South China Fleet in Zhanjiang, Guangdong.

In December last year, General Xiong Guangkai, the PLA's deputy chief of general staff, met Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Douglas Feith in the Pentagon.

But behind the smiles and handshakes, the relationship is not going well, according to sources from both sides.

They said ties are in bad shape, with little likelihood of any real improvement in the near future. US sources said anti-China sentiment within the Pentagon remains high, particularly from Mr Rumsfeld, who had opposed the resumption of the PLA exchanges and relented only after Mr Bush ordered him to toe the line.

The sources add that some Pentagon officers are throwing 'monkey-wrenches' into the programme, such as haphazardly planning the PLA visits and purging US officials who advocated closer ties with the Chinese.

Last month, the conservative Washington Times reported Marine Corps Lieutenant-General H.C.Stackpole would be eased out as head of the US Pacific Command's Centre for Asia-Pacific Security Studies because he had been a vocal critic of the Pentagon's policy towards the PLA.

Most importantly, sources said that despite the current quagmire in Iraq and the North Korean nuclear crisis, Pentagon defence planners continued to rank China as their long-term nemesis. They maintain that there has been an increase in US intelligence gathering on the mainland and preparations for a possible PLA attack on Taiwan.

'It is not a fight they want right now, but China is the Pentagon's long-term strategic concern. They will never lose sight of that,' a source said. Without disclosing specifics, sources pointed to the recent media reports of stepped-up US contact with the Taiwan military and monitoring of the PLA missile build-up along the Fujian coast.

Taiwan's United Daily News recently reported that the Pentagon and Taipei had established a direct emergency hotline for use in a military crisis.

Meanwhile, Chinese sources said the rank and file of the PLA had become extremely anti-American, adding that the PLA continued to distrust the Taiwan policy of George W. Bush's administration, despite recent pledges that it did not support the island's independence.

Many Chinese officers felt war with the US over Taipei was very likely, and that the PLA was not taking any chances. 'Taiwan is the place where we can go to war with the US. It could really happen,' a PLA source said.

Despite deep mutual distrust, both sides agree that General Cao's visit and the new exchanges would come with benefits such as improved dialogue. However, the reality of relations between the two militaries is crystal clear.

'Behind the curtains, everybody is sharpening their knives,' a US source said.