Gates snub raises tough questions about China ties

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Gates snub raises tough questions about China ties

Posted By Josh Rogin Friday, June 4, 2010 - 12:31 AM Share

Beijing's refusal to accept Defense Secretary Robert Gates's offer to visit China this week has exposed divisions inside the Chinese Communist Party structure and is also causing Washington to take a hard look at what's now seen as an overly optimistic view of the current state of the relationship.

U.S. officials admit privately that the the Gates snub is a bad sign, one that contradicts the impression they had coming off the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue that saw more than 200 U.S. officials travel to China just two weeks ago. Officials said that they still hold out hope that Gates will be granted a visit soon, but their confidence about China's willingness to improve military-to-military relations is quickly eroding, and the road ahead is far from clear.

"Nearly all of the aspects of the relationship between the United States and China are moving forward in a positive direction, with the sole exception of the military-to-military relationship ... the PLA [People's Liberation Army] is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China." Gates said Thursday in a rare open rebuke of the Chinese military. Gates made the remark en route to Singapore, where defense officials from all the Pacific countries except for China are convening for the annual Shangri-la Dialogue.

The conventional wisdom in Washington is that China is still protesting U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. But an administration official told The Cable that it's just not that simple. There is a struggle inside the Chinese Communist Party between those who want to more forcefully confront the U.S. on a range of issues, mostly within the PLA, and those who genuinely seek better ties, and the faction favoring confrontation is gaining ground.

At the May dialogue in Beijing, that dichotomy was exposed during bilateral meetings in an unusually open way. In what were otherwise constructive, albeit predictable exchanges, "The Chinese representative from the PLA ... could not have been more out of step with the meeting," a senior U.S. official told reporters during the plane ride back to Washington.

"Many on the Chinese side you could tell were going, 'Oh my God, this is not the message we should be giving the United States and our visitors at this time," the official said. "And actually, several of us went up after, and said, 'That was unhelpful. That's not the direction that we want to take the mil-to-mil relationship.'"

Still, as of that point, top U.S. officials were nonetheless convinced that Gates would be granted a visit soon. Another senior U.S. official remarked at the time how remarkable it was that the Chinese seemed to have gotten over their anger about the Taiwan arms sales so quickly.

Not so fast. Here's the statement Chinese embassy spokesman Wang Baodong gave The Cable in response to queries about Beijing's refusal to receive Gates.

"Military to military ties are an important part of China-US relations. China has been attaching importance to fostering mutual trust and cooperation between the two countries in the military field, and is willing to engage with the US side for exchanges and cooperation in the principle of respect, equality, mutual trust, and reciprocity. China hopes the US side conscientiously respects China's core interests and major concerns, to create conditions for resumption and healthy advancement of their bilateral military relations."

Wang also noted that there were mil-to-mil exchanges in Beijing. The PLA's deputy chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Ma Xiaotian, met with Admiral Robert Willard, head of Pacific Command, and Wallace "Chip" Gregson, assistant secretary of defense for Asian and Pacific security affairs.

But what Wang didn't mention is that Willard and Gregson had meetings with members of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other parts of the Chinese government as well. That surely irked PLA representatives. The credit for those meetings goes to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who fought hard, over Chinese objections, to make sure the U.S. military was well represented in the dialogue, because she saw the PLA trying to cut off ties.

"The military in China would like to control those avenues of discussion," one senior U.S. official said. "But because Secretary Clinton is prominent, and is saying, 'I'd like to do that,' the Chinese would very much like to say, 'Actually, it's not convenient for us.' And they tried, but she insisted."

China watchers in Washington lament that the Obama administration apparently had concluded that Beijing was just blustering about the arms sales and are calling on the administration to revise its expectations about the relationship.

"We need to be firm yet restrained: firm in our commitment to befriend a Taiwan serious about improving cross-strait relations; restrained in our belief that Chinese rhetoric is often inflated and their core interests include growing cooperation with the United States," said Patrick Cronin, director of the Asia Security program at the Center for a New American Security.

Some critics wonder aloud why the U.S. is always in the position of the ardent suitor when it comes to deepening military relations with China. After all, the U.S. is still the world's pre-eminint military power and the Chinese refusal to engage is a net loss for China, they say.

"The Chinese are seeking leverage wherever they think they may find it to persuade us to curtail or stop completely U.S. arms sales to Taiwan -- and our actions surely give them the impression they have leverage by holding out on mil-mil contacts," said Randall Schriver, former deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asia.

It is almost unthinkable, however, that Beijing would succeed in persuading Washington its decades-long policy of arming Taipei. The Obama administration has made it more than clear that the U.S. will continue to support Taiwan's defense as spelled out in the Taiwan Relations Act -- especially given that the balance of power across the Taiwan Strait is tipping heavily toward the Chinese side.

"There was nothing new, surprising or noteworthy in the Obama arms sale," said Dan Blumenthal, former China desk director at the Pentagon. "The real problem is China's unrelenting build-up even during a time of nonexistent cross-strait tension."

"As the United States, Japan, and South Korea take measures to increase their combined deterrent capabilities against North Korea, a country that borders China, now would seem an opportune time for China to seek military dialogue with the United States," he said. "China needs this dialogue more than we do."
"There are good reasons for us to exercise strategic patience and engender the feeling in China that things won't start again in a serious way until China asks for it," said Schriver.
 

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In Chinese admiral's outburst, a lingering distrust of U.S.

On May 24 in a vast meeting room inside the grounds of the state guesthouse at Diaoyutai in Beijing, Rear Adm. Guan Youfei of the People's Liberation Army rose to speak

Everything, Guan said, that is going right in U.S. relations with China is because of China. Everything, he continued, that is going wrong is the fault of the United States. Guan accused the United States of being a "hegemon" and of plotting to encircle China with strategic alliances. The official saved the bulk of his bile for U.S. arms sales to China's nemesis, Taiwan -- Guan said these prove that the United States views China as an enemy.

And last week in Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to portray not just Guan, but the whole of the People's Liberation Army, as an outlier intent on blocking better ties with Washington while the rest of China's government moves ahead.


On the plane back to the United States, for example, U.S. officials predicted that despite Guan's outburst, China would welcome Gates and that it would also begin to side with South Korea against North Korea following the release of a report in Seoul implicating the regime of Kim Jong Il in the deadly sinking of a South Korean warship on March 26. China did neither, and interviews with PLA officers indicate that the military is highly suspicious of the South Korean report.


Chinese analysts say the Obama administration ignores what China calls its "core national interests" -- especially U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan -- at its peril.

"For years, China has opposed arms sales to Taiwan among other things, but we were never strong enough to do anything about it," said Cui Liru, the president of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, a think tank run by the Ministry of State Security. "But our national strength has grown. And it is time that the United States pay attention."

"This is not just a talking point that can be dismissed by your government," he continued. "It is something that must be dealt with or it will seriously damage ties."


Secretary of Defense Robert Gates doesn't get hoped-for invite from China

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates departed for Asia on Wednesday but had to drop a big country from his itinerary after China, still smarting over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, gave him the cold shoulder.

Gates had been hoping for months to visit Beijing this summer, a destination that took on added importance at the Pentagon after North Korea -- which sees China as its closest ally and diplomatic protector -- was accused last month of sinking a South Korean warship with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors.

But Beijing declined to extend an invitation. Pentagon officials said no specific reason was given. But they said they assumed China was still annoyed by the Obama administration's announcement in January that it would approve $6.4 billion in arms sales to Taiwan.
 

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