MONTEREY, California - Even as he visited
the headquarters of the People's Liberation Army
Second Artillery Corps (SAC), China's strategic
missile command - the first US defense secretary
ever to do so - Donald Rumsfeld warned China that
the secretive nature of its military expansion was
raising global suspicions.
Therein lies an
inherent problem in the US's ties with China.
While political ties have taken a turn for the
better since September 11, 2001, with regular
summit meetings and high-level exchanges,
military exchanges have
remained limited, sporadic and at times
It is of some significance,
therefore, that Rumsfeld concluded his three-day
visit to China on Thursday with an agreement with
his Chinese counterparts to expand contacts and
engagement between the world's most powerful and
the largest (and modernizing) militaries.
Chinese Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan and
Rumsfeld agreed to "join hands to upgrade Sino-US
military ties and make them consistent with
overall bilateral relations".
Beijing, Rumsfeld also engaged China's future
party leaders at a seminar at the Central Party
School, where he called on China to take greater
responsibility in world affairs and also develop a
more open and transparent society.
this, he echoed the message repeated by
administration officials over the past few months
- that China is at a critical crossroads and its
direction has important implications for the
It is for this precise reason that
there has been a spurt in diplomatic activity
between the two countries. President George W Bush
is scheduled to visit Beijing next month. Earlier
this week, Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan
made his first trip to China, along with US
Treasury Secretary John Snow. Earlier, Secretary
of State Condoleezza Rice dropped by, followed by
her deputy, Robert Zoellick, to launch a
senior-level dialogue on strategic issues.
Rumsfeld's SAC visit is a major step
toward greater bilateral military exchanges and
reciprocity, even though the Pentagon's request to
tour China's real military command center in the
Western Hills was denied by the Chinese
The Bush administration began
its first term in office viewing China as a
potential strategic competitor. Bilateral military
ties, which had never been close and stable, were
further downgraded in the aftermath of the April
2001 EP-3 incident, in which a US naval spy
aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter plane,
resulting in the death of the Chinese pilot and
the temporary detention of the 24 American crew
The lack of engagement between
the two militaries allows deeply held suspicions,
worst-case scenarios and unfounded presumption to
dictate policy. Beijing views US defense
transformation and global posturing as attempts at
encirclement. The Pentagon is building strong
military ties with countries on China's periphery,
in particular with Japan and India. The US
military presence now extends from Southeast Asia
to Central Asia.
Washington is also
concerned over China's military modernization.
Administration officials, including Rumsfeld,
express alarm about Beijing's growing defense
spending and military buildup that is seen as
tilting the balance of power in the Taiwan Strait
and beyond and potentially threatening US
interests in the region.
Speaking at the
Central Party School, which top communist cadres
attend, Rumsfeld said, "A growth in China's power
projection understandably leads other nations to
question intentions and to adjust their behavior
in some fashion."
A recent Pentagon report
said that while China claimed to have a military
budget of US$30 billion, it was probably three
times bigger. China responded by saying this was
interference in China's internal affairs, and that
the US military budget was the biggest in the
world, topping $400 billion a year.
Uncertainty over the implications of
China's rise is understandable. But exaggeration
of China's current capabilities and, worse still,
deliberate distortion of Beijing's intentions
could lead to policies that would alienate
Beijing, threaten regional peace and stability,
and be harmful to America's own interests.
For instance, China has the world's
largest military and its defense modernization
over the past two decades has resulted in improved
equipment, better training and a more mechanized
and integrated force.
But even with these
achievements, the People's Liberation Army (PLA)
remains a military with limited force-projection
capability. Its foreign military procurement in
recent years has enabled the PLA to leapfrog in
selected areas and develop pockets of excellence,
but it is also an indication of the deficiency of
a domestic defense industrial base that has yet to
meet the requirements of the Chinese military.
Rumsfeld's visit should jump-start more
candid discussion at the highest military level on
these issues and concerns. The first priority
should be to prevent misperception,
misunderstanding, miscalculation and misjudgment
between the two militaries. On the Taiwan issue,
with the US-Japan security alliance and Chinese
military modernization, Washington and Beijing
cannot afford missteps. Rumsfeld's visit should go
some way towards preventing them.
Jing-dong Yuan is director of Research for
East Asia Non-Proliferation Program at the Center
for Non-Proliferation Studies, Monterey Institute
of International Studies, where he is also an
associate professor of international policy