Gates spearheads moves for improved Sino-US relations

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 January, 2011, 12:00am

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates' four-day visit to China, beginning today, sets the seal on the resumption of military contact after almost a year's suspension.

Gates' visit came a week before President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington, giving hope that both sides may be willing to make headway on some sticky security issues. Analysts also expect a series of military exchanges will resume this year. It is the first visit by a defence secretary since William Cohen in 2000, and follows a series of disagreements last year that showed the volatile nature of military ties between the two powers.

China froze military contacts with the United States in response to Washington's decision to sell arms to Taiwan early last year. Things started to thaw in October when Defence Minister Liang Guanglie and Gates met for the first time last year in Hanoi, Vietnam, and agreed to resume contacts.

The visit gives Gates and his counterparts an opportunity to hash out the usual unpleasantries over US arms sales and reconnaissance, according to Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt, a former Pentagon official who directs strategic studies for the Centre for Naval Analyses, a US military research organisation. 'It takes these issues off the table,' said McDevitt, freeing Hu and US President Barack Obama to tackle other matters.

Gates was likely to reassure his counterparts that US military exercises in the Yellow Sea have 'remarkably little to do with China and everything to do with North Korea', said Jonathan Pollack, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert on US military strategy in East Asia.

Gates is expected to meet Hu and top People's Liberation Army leaders before he sets off for Japan and South Korea, the US' closest allies in Asia.

But Sino-US affairs observers maintain that it is hard to remove some of the obstacles in the development of Sino-US military relations simply as the result of a single visit.

Since last year, there were significant changes in both countries' military strategies, as policies and tactics towards each other became more critical and provocative, they said.

Jin Canrong , associate dean of Renmin University's school of international relations, said: 'While China is adjusting its diplomacy to match its fast-rising economic clout by adopting a more aggressive stance, Washington is becoming less confident and more suspicious about China's growing military by adopting a policy of 'returning to Asia'.'

Observers noted signs of friction ranging from a war of words over 'national interests' between Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in July at the Asean Regional Forum in Hanoi, to joint exercises by US and South Korean forces in the Yellow Sea and by US and Japanese forces in the Sea of Japan in the past few months and counter drills by the PLA following the Korean peninsula crisis and the spat between Beijing and Tokyo over the Diaoyu Islands.

Jin said Beijing was adopting tougher stances on old issues than it had in the past, citing Beijing's reaction to Obama's decision to sell arms to Taiwan, and the presence of the aircraft carrier USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea.

He said China's pronouncement that territorial disputes in the South and East China seas involved its 'core national interest' meant Beijing would brook no compromise in any confrontation with Washington.

The Asia-Pacific region has been peaceful since 1979, but the series of high-profile feuds last year speak volumes about China's increasing naval ambitions and intensifying competition in Asia's oceans between the two Pacific military powers.

Policymakers in Washington believe that the strategic architecture has been unsettled by China's growing influence and ability to project power.

China's advances in developing anti-ship ballistic missiles, dubbed 'carrier killers', blue water and aircraft carrier fleets, and the prototype of its first stealth fighter jet all suggest Beijing's intention to challenge American forces in the Pacific and beyond, raising questions in the Pentagon over whether China's growing strength should be compared with the US position at the end of the 19th century or, more ominously, with the rise of Germany and Japan during the same period.

On the other hand, strategists in Beijing view US diplomacy in Asia as increasingly aggressive in the past year, a contrast with what some believe was neglect of the region under the previous US administration.

Beijing has worried about the increasing US military presence and the upgrading of America's military ties with its traditional allies in the region. Beijing was particularly annoyed over Washington's courtship of Southeast and South Asian nations, such as Vietnam and India, and Clinton's assertion that the US had a stake in those countries' territorial disputes with Beijing.

Rear Admiral Yang Yi, a hawk who was previously head of strategic studies at the People Liberation Army's National Defence University, says there are three major obstacles to the development of Sino-US military ties: US arms sales to Taiwan; US congressional bills restricting exchanges between the two militaries; and high-intensity, close reconnaissance by US military ships and aircraft in China's exclusive economic zone.

Professor David Shambaugh, director of the China Policy Programme at George Washington University, said last year was not an easy year for US-China relations in general and 'a terrible one' for the military-military relationship. 'With Gates' visit, at least a modicum of normalcy will be restored and the two sides will discuss a series of bilateral exchanges for the year.'

Zhu Feng , deputy director of Peking University's Centre for Strategic and International Studies, said Gates' visit signified the start of an all-round resumption of exchange and dialogue before Hu's state visit.

Shambaugh said the agenda might include joint naval exercises, a new strategic issues dialogue, discussion of the Military Maritime Co-operation Agreement mechanism to manage potentially destabilising incidents at sea, defence educational exchanges, and higher-level exchanges between the armed services.

US-Chinese military contacts have been subject to direct military friction or political winds in recent decades, ever since the establishment of diplomatic ties in the latter years of the cold war, with regular 'start-stop-restart' cycles seen under most previous US administrations.

'The military is subject to politics, thus the former has often been hijacked by the latter whenever political ties turned sour,' Zhu said.

Former US president George H. W. Bush ordered a halt to contacts and exchanges shortly after the PLA attacked pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in 1989.

Contacts were frozen in 1996, after China lobbed missiles near Taiwan and, in a show of force, then US president Bill Clinton ordered two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area.

Beijing cut off military contacts after the US bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during the Nato air war over Yugoslavia.

Contacts were suspended again over the collision of a US Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter in April 2001 after China detained the US crew on Hainan , where they made an emergency landing.

Since Obama assumed office at the beginning of 2009, top American and Chinese officials have repeatedly stressed that the two countries are 'in the same boat' and need to work together to weather the storm. Hu and Obama have launched campaigns to make their relations 'a constructive and co-operative partnership' in all areas bar the military, where they have advocated a 'sustainable and reliable' relationship.

But unlike their co-operation in other areas, 'military relations are the most sensitive, difficult and complicated', Zhu said.

Additional reporting by Kristin Jones in New York

Tumultuous ties

January 29, 2010

US President Barack Obama announces a US$6.4 billion arms deal for Taiwan. Beijing halts all high-level military exchanges with the US.

February 17

Beijing approves the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier group's visit to Hong Kong despite cooling ties.

June 2

China turns down US Defence Secretary Robert Gates' planned visit.

July 1

Beijing 'strongly opposes' US-South Korea military drills on July 27 on its doorstep in the Yellow Sea.

July 7

China declines to condemn North Korea's role in the sinking of a South Korean warship despite a US request at a UN Security Council meeting.

July 23

US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton says the US has national interests in the South China Sea, drawing a strong reaction from Beijing.

August 16

The US says the Diaoyu Islands, claimed by China and Japan, fall within the scope of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Co-operation and Security after the Japanese detain a Chinese fishing boat.

October 11

High-level military exchanges formally resume when Defence Minister Liang Guanglie and Gates meet in Hanoi.

November 2

The PLA Navy holds live-fire war games in the South China Sea - an apparent message to the US not to step into territorial disputes with China.

November 11

Normal Sino-US ties resume as President Hu Jintao meets Obama at the G20 Summit in Seoul.

November 26

China opposes US-South Korean naval exercises with the USS George Washington aircraft carrier group in the Yellow Sea.