Page 1 of 2 Chinese general on a long march
By Peter J Brown
The United States and China are warming up - at least symbolically - their
military ties ahead of United States President Barack Obama's first official
visit to China in mid-November. In late October, General Xu Caihou, the
second-highest ranking officer in the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA),
started a long trip to the US. At the age of 66, Xu serves as vice chairman of
China's Central Military Commission (CMC), and as a member of the politburo of
the Chinese Communist Party.
Xu visited a few US military bases as well as the US Naval Academy, and at the
Pentagon he met with US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates for the second time.
They met once before in Beijing during the first trip that Gates made to Asia
as secretary of defense in 2007.
Among other things, after leaving Washington DC, Xu flew to the
headquarters of the US Strategic Command (US STRATCOM) outside Omaha, Nebraska,
on October 28, when he became the first PLA officer to enter that US military
base. Air Force General Kevin Chilton, commander of US STRATCOM, held
discussions with Xu and later hosted a dinner for him.
Abraham Denmark, director of the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center
for a New American Security in Washington, DC described Xu's visit to US
STRATCOM as possibly enabling a discussion between the US and China on space
and cyber issues, in addition to nuclear issues. Because Major General Yin
Fanglong, director of the political department of the Second Artillery Corps,
which commands China's missile and nuclear forces, was also part of the
delegation, nuclear strategy and policy-related issues may well have been on
the agenda in Nebraska, too.
Xu was also accompanied by General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of general staff
of the PLA, Lieutenant General Zhao Keshi, commander of the Nanjing Military
Area Command, and Rear Admiral Jiang Weilie, chief of staff of East Fleet of
the PLA Navy, among others.
"In the interest of strengthening our military-to-military relations with a
candid and open exchange of information, we will not disclose the details of
the discussions," said a US STRATCOM spokesman.
Denmark describes the recent US-China "Strategic and Economic Dialogue" as "a
higher-level dialogue" because the US-China military-to-military relationship
typically lags far behind the economic and political aspects of the
relationship, "primarily because a general lack of strategic trust and,
frankly, China's lack of interest in a frank and transparent
"As one of two CMC vice chairmen, Xu ranks just below President Hu Jintao. His
arrival, instead of Liang Guanglie - China's Minister of National Defense and
Gates' nominal though not substantive counterpart - demonstrates China's
determination that the appearance of transparency and openness [as opposed to
any] actual transparency and openness is in its interests," said Denmark. "The
problem is that China continues to view transparency as transactional and a
tool of strong powers over those that are weaker. Until that attitude changes,
expectations will always be limited."
Following a meeting between Xu and Gates, the two countries announced that
Gates would visit China next year, and that General Chen Bingde, PLA chief of
the general staff, and US Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US joint
chiefs of staff, will exchange visits.
Joint maritime search and rescue exercises, and more military-to-military
exchanges involving all ranks including cultural and sporting events were also
announced. Gates wants these to be held on a regular basis. In other words,
Gates wants continuity in these vital military-to-military activities resulting
in upticks in both frequency and scope. For example, the next round of Military
Maritime Consultative Agreement discussions are scheduled for December.
Xu's gave his most important public speech on this trip at the Center for
Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington DC just prior to his
meeting with Gates.
"Exchanges and cooperation between China and the United States are important
for world peace and development, as well as for the fundamental interests of
the two nations," said Xu. "The Chinese military is positive towards developing
[military-to-military] relations with the US military. We will not forget that
over 60 years ago, for a just cause of mankind, China and the US fought
shoulder-to-shoulder against fascist forces."
Xu touched on the sensitive topic of what constitutes acceptable conduct in the
South China Sea, where there have been brushes between US naval ships and
Chinese vessels. "That was caused by the intensive reconnaissance missions
conducted by US Navy ships in China's exclusive economic zones (EEZ), which
infringed upon Chinese interests," said Xu. "Neither of us wants to see this
happen again, so I believe that the two navies should continue our consultation
and discussion in maritime military security in a spirit of friendship and
According to Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at the CSIS Freeman Chair in China
Studies, Xu did not say anything new. He was "seeking to portray the PLA as the
'people's army' that is focused on MOOTW - [military operations other than
"Differences persist, for example, over US surveillance operations in China's
EEZ. China views these as challenges to its core interests, which they insist
should be respected," said Glaser. "The US views freedom of navigation as among
its core interests."
Each side also has its own list of the most important issues to be addressed at
this point, according to Glaser.
"The US and China have a different list. For China, the issues are US military
ties with Taiwan and arms sales to Taiwan, operation in China's EEZ as well as
the US National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 restrictions, and the
publication [by the US Department of Defense] of the Chinese military power
report," said Glaser. "The US is interested in expanding bilateral military
cooperation, boosting cooperation with China on Iran and North Korea,
persuading the Chinese to explain their military programs, especially their
nuclear modernization and development of anti-ship ballistic missiles. The US
will also urge China to reduce its military buildup opposite Taiwan."
Drew Thompson, director of China studies at The Nixon Center, sees China's
decision to have Xu address a public audience on this trip as an indicator of
China's desire "to engage in public diplomacy and shape the image of the PLA
"His visit does not promise or mark a breakthrough in Sino-US
military-to-military relations, but represents one step in a long dialogue
which has shown some positive trends recently," said Thompson." That said,
there are still areas of deep mutual distrust which will not be easily
overcome. Until some of those divergent interests are addressed, the prospects
for a dramatic deepening of the military-to-military relationship are limited."
Richard Fisher, senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy
Center in Washington DC, listened to Xu's speech and found that important
details were lacking. China's reluctance to become more transparent was driven
home by Xu's decision to hand out a book - The Wisdom of Sun Tzu - as
part of a gift package to members of the audience.
"Nearly 2,000 years before Machiavelli, Sun Tzu raised lying and deception to
the acme of statesmanship," said Fisher. Also, "there was no attempt [during
Xu's speech] to satisfy demands for 'transparency' in areas of concern to the
US and China's neighbors; no serious details on nukes, intentions versus
Taiwan, Japan or future power projection plans."