US military officials voice frustration over ties with China

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 April, 2011, 12:00am


A hiatus in Chinese military ties with the US has been officially over for more than six months. But American military officials say the gains from dialogue have been limited.

US and Chinese military officials met in Beijing last week to discuss the upcoming visit to Washington of People's Liberation Army commander Chen Bingde. Officials from both countries said that they look forward to a continuation of bilateral military consultations, which were frozen last year after the US sale of arms to Taiwan.

Military relations have improved, the commander of US forces in Asia-Pacific, Admiral Robert Willard, told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday. After a spate of territorial disputes in its coastal waters last year, China's navy had 'retrenched', Willard said. 'While we continue to experience their shadowing of some of our ships that are operating in some of these waters, we have not seen the same level of assertiveness in 2011 that we witnessed in 2010,' he said.

American military officials also said the dialogue had fallen short of long-held hopes.

Secretary of Defence Dr Robert Gates has twice proposed high-level dialogue with China on nuclear strategy, space and cyberspace issues, Willard said last week. But China has given no definitive response.

Defence department official Bradley Roberts told senators on Wednesday that the administration has also sought to discuss ballistic missile defence issues with China, 'with little success'.

'We have concluded ... that the United States form of relations is somewhat inimical to the Chinese organisational construct,' Willard told a group of businessmen, students and journalists in New York last week. 'Philosophically, mil-to-mil relations for China are inherently political.'

The admiral reiterated previous US contentions that Chinese naval forces did not adhere to agreed protocols to communicate at sea.

'My guidance to our forces ... is that we take opportunities to attempt to execute those protocols when we're in proximity to a Chinese ship,' Willard said. 'We don't always get an answer back from the bridge of the other ship, but we try.'

Complaints about the Chinese military's lack of transparency in its massive programme of modernisation are at issue in an ongoing debate about defence spending in the US.

'As long as we remain uncertain regarding future Chinese intent, either with their naval forces or any of their military forces, it's important that we take the necessary steps and make the necessary investments to pace those changes as they occur,' Willard told members of Congress last week.

Willard gave his assessments at Congressional hearings over the past week that were intended to address the Pentagon's fiscal year 2012 budget.

But that debate has been overshadowed by more pressing issues in Washington, as a stand-off over this year's budget threatened to shut down the federal government. Willard's scheduled testimony before a House appropriations subcommittee on military construction was postponed on Thursday, as Congress convened to pass a last-minute federal budget compromise.

Further US defence cuts may loom. President Barack Obama proposed cutting an additional US$400 billion from military spending in the coming years. He did not say which programmes would be affected.

US military analysts say that budget cuts could impact future investments in capabilities intended in part to counterbalance the PLA's military expansion.

'It's not clear that the Asia-Pacific team will prevail in the fight for resources right now,' said Patrick Cronin, with the Centre for a New American Security in Washington. Anything from the size of the US Navy to satellite programmes to submarines could be vulnerable to future cuts, Cronin said.

In the short term, the budget leaves intact a closely watched US plan to buy two nuclear-powered Virginia-class submarines this year.

'The importance of United States submarines in the Asia-Pacific can't be overstated,' Willard told the House Armed Services Committee last week. 'The submarines afford us both a covert and highly capable platform from which to characterise the undersea environment and to help to dominate that domain.'