Mon, Feb 09, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Sino-US military ties in a standoff

By Richard Halloran

Military exchanges between China and the US remain frozen despite a seemingly cordial telephone conversation between US President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) and the forthcoming port call in Hong Kong of the aircraft carrier USS John C. Stennis.

Said a US officer: “It’s still a work in progress.”

Indeed, China underscored its displeasure with the US with not-so-subtle warnings last week. Two generals signed an essay lauding the increased capability of China’s nuclear forces, including long-range missiles that could strike the US. And a defense academic asserted that China’s White Paper on military forces issued last month marked the limit of China’s willingness to disclose military information.

The US, under several administrations, has sought exchanges with Chinese military leaders to persuade them not to miscalculate US capabilities and intentions. This was forcefully expressed in public in 1999 by Admiral Dennis Blair, then head of the US Pacific Command and now director of national intelligence. He told Congress the message to China was that the US did not intend to “contain” China, but “don’t mess with us.”

More recently, officials of the George W. Bush and Obama administrations have urged the Chinese to be more “transparent” in strategy, budgets and procurement of weapons. Said Admiral Timothy Keating, the current Pacific commander: “We’d like a little more transparency in their long-range intentions.”

The commentary by Chen Zhou (陳舟) of China’s Academy of Military Science sought to rebut that.

The present standoff began in October when the Bush administration and Taiwan’s government agreed on a US$6.5 billion sale of arms to Taipei. The sale, if consummated, would include 330 Patriot missiles intended to intercept the 1,400 missiles China aims at Taiwan.

The Chinese immediately protested the arms sale and, as they have in the past when the US displeased them, cut off port visits, exchanges of military students and reciprocal visits by military leaders.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Qin Gang (秦剛) said: “The United States ignored China’s serious stance and strong opposition, and is bent on selling weapons to Taiwan, which has contaminated the positive atmosphere for US-China relations.”

Obama telephoned Hu several days ago, but so far as could be determined from the public record, did not discuss the estranged military relations between the US and China except in convoluted terms. Xinhua news agency reported that Hu said “the core interest of either country should be respected by each other and taken into consideration.”

Since the phrase “core interest” often refers to the Taiwan issue, in which the Chinese insist the US should not interfere, that may have been the closest the two leaders came to the cause of the breakdown in military exchanges. Most of their conversation appears to have centered on the economic crisis.

US officers insisted that the port call to Hong Kong later this month of the USS John C. Stennis, a nuclear powered warship armed with 85 combat aircraft, would not reflect a revival of military exchanges. Evidently Chinese military leaders do not consider a visit to Hong Kong the equivalent of a visit to Shanghai or other ports.

Underscoring the standoff was the essay on nuclear weapons by General Jing Zhiyuan (金濟元), commander of China’s nuclear missile force, and General Peng Xiaofeng (彭曉楓), the political commissar of the force. They asserted that their force had strengthened “strategic deterrence” by being better able to mount intercontinental missile strikes and by creating a versatile missile inventory.

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