China Power

Gates (Finally) Heads to China

Robert Gates is heading to Beijing. There’s plenty going on with China’s military to talk about.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates is heading to China after what was a rocky 2010 for US-China diplomatic and military ties.

The United States infuriated China with its $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan at the start of last year, prompting Beijing to halt the limited military ties that the two countries had. Things didn’t get any better as the year went on, with Beijing snubbing Robert Gates during his Asia tour later in the year. Gates indicated that he believed the PLA had in effect blocked his efforts to arrange a meeting with the political leadership.

To compound matters, in July, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton responded to China’s sweeping claims to the South China Sea with a speech in Hanoi indicating that the US had an interest in keeping the waters open and free of the competing territorial disputes that have marked regional ties, while Beijing was also frustrated that the US appeared to so clearly side with Japan in a spat over a detained Chinese fishing vessel captain in September.

However, it wasn’t all gloomy — late last year Beijing resumed military ties in a welcome sign that it was no longer (for now at least) willing to cut off its nose to spite its face. After all, it’s hardly in Beijing’s interests to use military ties as some kind of bargaining chip to be taken off the table every time Washington ‘displeases’ it.

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So, what is Gates likely to want to discuss while he’s in Beijing? I asked RAND analyst Scott Harold for his take on this week’s visit, which comes just a week before Chinese President Hu Jintao heads to Washington.

Of course as Harold notes, at the moment all we can do is make an educated guess over what exactly will be discussed. Still, he’s almost certainly right that China’s continued military modernization – and the motivations behind it – is likely to be on the agenda.

The past month alone has given the Pentagon plenty to mull over, with the revelations that China is set to deploy its first aircraft carrier a year earlier than expected, that it has an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile (ASBM) system that’s further advanced than many analysts had expected, and that China appears to be some way along the track of building its own stealth fighter.

‘I think that, of the various systems…the most disturbing for the US is likely to be the ASBM,’ Harold told me.‘I think that at some point we're likely to see the US requesting that China join the INF (Inter-mediate Nuclear Forces Treaty), at which point things will get very interesting if it says no.’ 

The fact that China is developing its military prowess at a faster clip than many US observers expected comes at an awkward time for the Pentagon, which is under pressure to cut costs as the US seeks to close its budget deficit. Indeed, this week it announced that it would be cutting its budget by about $78 billion over the next five years.

Will these cuts hurt the US ability to respond to Beijing’s build-up?

‘By and large, as I understand it, the proposed and on-going defence budget cuts are to systems not essential for deterrence or war-fighting in the Western Pacific,’ Harold said. ‘In general, I think what we're looking at is the Defence Department adapting to a world of realistic, reduced — though by no means small — budgets, and doing so in a responsible manner. 

‘Fortunately, we're not likely to go so far as to reach armed conflict, so the point is probably moot.But there’s always a chance, so the US needs to be thinking about what we would need if our armed forces were called upon to defend US allies, friends and/or interests from a challenge by China,’ he said. ‘In responding to these challenges, US leaders have noted that the greater threats to our interests come from unsustainable budgets, which are under our control,and with respect to China specifically, from things that they are doing in space, the cyber realm and electronic warfare rather than in platform development.’

Harold also agrees that cutting off military ties achieves little except damaging China’s image as a serious and responsible country that in his words ‘doesn't pout every time something it doesn't like happens’. He noted that the US has plenty of ways to collect information about China and the PLA, ‘so cutting ties off does not stop that.’  He’s right to note that the one thing the cutting of ties does do is stifle the building of mutual understanding.

‘I'm sure the Secretary would like to see relations develop more smoothly so that the US and China can at least understand each others' viewpoints, inflection points for decision-making, and thereby improve our ability to avoid miscommunications and misunderstandings,’ he noted.

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But he ended with a note of caution. ‘I'm fairly certain that substantial numbers of high-ranking PLA officers don't see as much value in military-to-military ties, and in recent years these officers and the advice they’ve given up the chain of command into the Central Military Commission have carried the day, unfortunately,’ he told me. 

‘Whether this is because they genuinely believe that such ties are detrimental to China, or because the PLA as an institution seeks to shield its own prerogatives by leveraging tensions in foreign affairs, isn’t clear.’