U.S. and China Try to Agree on Military Strategy
By MICHAEL WINES
BEIJING — During three days in China this week, the top American military officer, Adm. Mike Mullen, exchanged warm pledges with his Chinese counterpart to improve the reliably fractious relationship between the two forces. He watched Chinese Su-27 fighters barrel roll over an air base, saw a Chinese counterterrorism exercise in a stifling bunker beneath an army post and squeezed into a Chinese submarine at a naval base.
By the time Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, departed on Thursday morning, one might never have suspected that each side bases its military planning on the prospect that the other might be the enemy.
They do, however, and that reality hung like a dark cloud over the visit, the first such meeting in four years here in Beijing. It is making rapprochement between the world’s leading military power and its fastest-rising one a fiendishly difficult task — even as the president of each nation says he wants to achieve precisely that.
As the United States military contemplates the future and in particular a newly powerful Asia, its ever more crucial relationship with China is being tugged in opposite directions. China’s own breakneck modernization of its creaky military machine is the principal reason.
The Chinese military recently confirmed the impending launch of its first aircraft carrier, with more to come. It has staged the maiden flight of its first stealth jet fighter and lifted the curtain on another carrier-based fighter. Its shipyards are building a new, still-secret class of advanced submarines. And it has acknowledged the development of a seagoing missile that some experts say could strike ships as far as 1,025 miles away.
Except for the submarines, each of these developments occurred this year. And they followed a year in which the Chinese military put seven reconnaissance satellites into orbit.
On the one hand, analysts say, China’s military ambitions are understandable. The country’s global trade footprint and its reliance on foreign fuel and raw materials justify building a sophisticated and far-flung military force to secure its interests, just as the United States has done. As China expands into areas now dominated by the American military, they say, broad cooperation is crucial to avoid dangerous rivalries and potentially disastrous miscalculations. Some good might even come of this unlikely alliance.
But on the other hand, many American analysts view China’s military overhaul as the core of an effort to rein in American military power in the western Pacific. In this view, the antiship missile, aircraft carrier and much of the other sophisticated hardware China is developing are intended as a counterforce to the United States Navy’s Seventh Fleet, which has dominated Pacific waters for a half-century or more.
“It’s not that we need another enemy like the Soviet Union,” Bonnie S. Glaser, a senior fellow in Chinese security policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said in an interview. “We’re responding to measures that China is taking, and to the unwillingness of China to sit down and tell us what they’re doing and what missions these new platforms and weapons are intended to achieve.”
From an American standpoint, the Chinese have been ambiguous about their motivations. In January, fresh from a summit meeting with President Obama in Washington, President Hu Jintao made it clear that the People’s Liberation Army, the overseer of all Chinese forces, needs to build trust with the Pentagon.
Yet the Chinese army — not to mention large factions in China’s bureaucracy, its leadership and the all-powerful Communist Party — regard the United States as determined to thwart China’s rightful emergence as a global power.
They note that the United States has shifted the bulk of its aircraft carriers from the Atlantic to the Pacific, that it recently strengthened military agreements with Singapore and Australia, that it is courting China’s rival, India, and that it has sought to intervene diplomatically in the South China Sea, where China and most of its neighbors have experienced bitter territorial disputes.
They also note that the United States has rejected demands to scale back aerial and ocean reconnaissance of China’s eastern border on the Pacific. Nor will it revise a longstanding Congressional mandate to sell weapons to Taiwan, which China claims as a province. China has all but set the resolution of both issues as a precondition for genuine trust between the two militaries.
And so the Chinese are building what they call an entirely defensive force, although one that includes weapons that exist primarily to strike American military targets.
“I can understand people in the Pentagon and the P.L.A. planning for worst-case scenarios — all militaries do that,” said Dennis J. Blasko, an independent scholar who worked as a China expert in Army intelligence, referring to the People’s Liberation Army. “That’s the function of militaries — to make those plans.”
Admiral Mullen, in his visit to China, said repeatedly that American actions in the Pacific were merely a part of decades of involvement in the region that did not pose a threat to China. In a speech at the National Defense University in Washington in May, Gen. Chen Bingde, the commanding officer of the Chinese forces, said that his country’s military upgrade could not hope to match American technological might, and that China “never intends to challenge the U.S.”
But on both sides of the Pacific, suspicions inevitably rise every time one side unveils a new weapon or cements an old alliance.
Some American analysts say the two nations’ moves and countermoves could doom any chance for a true military and diplomatic accommodation. Others say the United States could be forced into another arms race — except that this time, unlike during the cold war, it would be China that has billions to spend on new weapons and the United States that might be forced to choose between guns and butter.
Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former diplomat whom Mr. Obama unsuccessfully nominated to lead the National Intelligence Council, made that case forcefully in a recent speech to the China Maritime Studies Institute, which is based in Rhode Island.
“The United States is now fiscally hollow,” Mr. Freeman said, noting that the entire American military budget is essentially financed with borrowed money. “Yet we are entering a long-term military rivalry with China on terms that are easily bearable by China but fiscally ruinous for us. This rivalry is all the more disadvantageous because China is competing in notably cost-effective ways, and we are not.”
Some analysts dispute his assessment. But most would agree that it costs much less to build a missile that can sink an American carrier than it does to build the carrier and a sophisticated anti-missile defense system.
China may be able to afford the missile, and the United States may be able to build the ship and the defense system. But whether they are necessary might be another matter. Said one American analyst, “We’re priming for a fight that I’m not sure either of us needs or wants to have.”