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.
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.