China Watching

By John Liang / October 12, 2010 at 8:36 PM

Defense Secretary Robert Gates this week met with the head of the Chinese military, seeking to renew defense talks between the two nations. As The New York Times reports:

At the sidelines of a conference for Asian defense ministers, Mr. Gates spent about half an hour behind closed doors with Gen. Liang Guanglie of China, and emerged to say he had explained how arms sales to Taiwan were a decision by Washington’s civilian leadership, not one made by the Pentagon or the armed forces.

“It is fundamentally a political decision,” Mr. Gates said. “Why the military relationship should be held hostage to what is essentially a political decision seems to me curious. And I believe it should not be.”

Restoring communications between the Chinese and American militaries is an urgent need, Mr. Gates said, because “having greater clarity and understanding of each other is essential to preventing mistrust, miscalculations and mistakes.”

Restoring communications between the Chinese and American militaries is an urgent need, Mr. Gates said, because “having greater clarity and understanding of each other is essential to preventing mistrust, miscalculations and mistakes.”

Military relations between the two nations lag far behind their diplomatic and economic ties. Exchanges between the armed forces were completely frozen by China earlier this year in retribution for a decision by the United States to sell $6.4 billion in arms to Taiwan, which Beijing considers a renegade province. reported last week that the Obama administration is keeping its latest thinking on Taiwan's security under wraps, declining to release remarks delivered by senior Pentagon and State Department officials at a recent annual defense conference of the U.S.-Taiwan Business Council. Specifically:

Pentagon and State Department officials denied requests from for the texts of remarks delivered to an audience that included Taiwan's deputy defense minister for policy, Andrew Yang, at the Oct. 4-5 conference in Cambridge, MD. Media are barred from the otherwise public gathering, conducted since 2002 as an off-the-record event.

In prior years the Pentagon has made public the text of speeches delivered by its senior representative at council meetings.

“I think that what is going on is a desire to reactivate mil-to-mil contacts with China,” said one conference attendee with expertise in Asian regional security issues. The source noted that media coverage of high-level Pentagon participation the conference on Taiwan's defense needs could draw protests from Beijing, which vehemently objects to Washington's military support of Taipei.

A recent Congressional Research Service report obtained by outlines the issues Congress may look into regarding U.S.-Chinese military-to-military relations:

Issues for the 111th Congress include whether the Obama Administration has complied with legislation overseeing dealings with the [People's Liberation Army] and pursued contacts with the PLA that advances a prioritized set of U.S. security interests, especially the safety of U.S. military personnel. Oversight legislation includes the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY1990-FY1991 (P.L. 101-246) and National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2000 (P.L. 106-65). Skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with the PRC have debated whether the contacts have significant value for achieving U.S. objectives and whether the contacts have contributed to the PLA’s warfighting capabilities that might harm U.S. security interests. Some have argued about whether the value that U.S. officials have placed on the contacts overly extends leverage to the PLA. Officials believe talks can serve U.S. interests that include conflict prevention and crisis management; transparency and reciprocity; tension reduction over Taiwan; weapons nonproliferation; strategic nuclear/space talks; counterterrorism; and accounting for POW/MIAs.

Policymakers could review the approach to mil-to-mil contacts. U.S. defense officials have reported inadequate cooperation from the PLA, including denials of port visits at Hong Kong and aid to U.S. Navy ships in distress (Thanksgiving 2007). The PLA has tried to use its suspensions of exchanges while blaming U.S. “obstacles” (including arms sales to Taiwan, legal restrictions on contacts with the PLA, and the Pentagon’s reports to Congress on the PLA). The PRC’s harassment of U.S. surveillance ships (in 2009) and increasing assertiveness in maritime areas have shown the limits to the results of mil-to-mil talks and PLA restraint. Still, at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July 2009, President Obama called for military contacts to diminish disputes with China. The NDAA for FY2010 (P.L. 111-84) amended the requirement in P.L. 106-65 for the report on PRC military power to expand the focus to security developments involving the PRC, add cooperative elements, and fold in another requirement to report on mil-to-mil contacts, including a new strategy for such contacts (but the report is late in 2010).