Riling Hawks, A Top U.S. Commander Seeks Fresh Military Tack on China

By Elaine M. Grossman / November 17, 2005

The top U.S. commander in the Asia-Pacific region, Adm. William Fallon, has said repeatedly during his first nine months on the job that he intends to strengthen bilateral military relations with China, an objective embraced by those who believe expanded engagement with the People's Liberation Army (PLA) will enhance U.S. and regional security. But some initial ideas about broader Sino-American contact reportedly floated by the 38-year Navy veteran -- a relative newcomer to the Far East -- have met intense skepticism from some conservatives in and outside the Pentagon who allege Fallon may unwittingly threaten American interests.

"Fallon is caught up in the 'If we're nice to them, they'll be nice to us' thing," asserts one defense official on the eve of President Bush's Nov. 19 visit to Beijing. The concern is that by putting too much stock in the potential benefits of engagement, the admiral risks underestimating China's capabilities and intentions, this official said on condition of anonymity.

For his part, the Pacific commander says the alternative risk of failing to engage his Chinese counterparts is unacceptably high.

"The fact that we are pretty well nowhere in that relationship, and the consequences of being in that position, are pretty obvious to me," Fallon told Inside the Pentagon in a Nov. 7 interview. "There's no easy way to communicate [and] the absence of a regular dialogue or some basis for having a conversation tends to leave us in a position of the unknown."

New initiatives might include an expansion of exchanges for military academy students and war college faculty members, more visits by senior officers and civilians, or cooperation on a range of confidence-building measures, experts say. During the Clinton administration, the Pentagon even proposed joint exercises on peacekeeping or emergency rescue missions, though the Chinese declined.

Initially chilly to the Chinese upon taking office, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld cut off all contact between the American and Chinese militaries after an April 2001 incident in which a Chinese fighter aircraft collided with a U.S. spy plane. Since then, the two militaries have gradually resumed exchanges but only in small number and at relatively low levels.

In broad terms, Rumsfeld has endorsed the idea of expanded military engagement with China. He discussed the possibility during his first visit to Beijing as defense secretary last month.

Speaking at an Oct. 19 press conference with Gen. Gao Gangchuan, China's defense minister and vice chairman of the Central Military Committee, Rumsfeld said, "I come away from my visit with the minister confident that we will be able to find activities and exchanges and interaction between our two militaries that will be mutually beneficial."

Crossing swords

But a month earlier, following Fallon's own first trip to mainland China, Rumsfeld reportedly crossed swords with the admiral on the same issue.

A number of China-watchers in the Pentagon and elsewhere say Rumsfeld has tightened the leash on Fallon after the Pacific commander proposed a more amiable approach to U.S.-Chinese military relations than the defense secretary could swallow. Some cite a behind-the-scenes meeting in the Pentagon in September in which the two quarreled over their fundamental perspectives about China, with Rumsfeld convinced the commander's comments to the media and secret cables during and after his trip to Beijing seemed naïve.

Among the views Fallon offered reporters just after the visit were that despite "historic animosities" in the region -- including the seemingly intractable differences between China and Taiwan over sovereignty issues -- "we need to focus on the things that are of mutual interest that would be helpful to people and move on."

"One of the biggest consequences of his first time out is his sense of overconfidence in what he knows about China," says one regional expert, speaking on condition of not being named. "On the surface, anyone would agree with Fallon on 'let's move past these animosities,' [but] the animosities go back 2,000 years."

In other comments during his September trip, Fallon said China's growth, "particularly in the military, would not be unexpected given their phenomenal economic expansion" in recent years.

Though the admiral went on to say the motivations behind the sizable Chinese buildup are unknown, the tone of his remarks put him at odds with Rumsfeld, defense sources and experts say. In a June speech in Singapore, the defense secretary had sounded more ominous notes about Beijing's growing military investment, expanded arms purchases and "robust" weapons deployments, given that "no nation threatens China."

"Then along comes Fallon and [he] undercuts the secretary publicly," says one China expert, asking not to be named. "That's the heart of the matter. Rumsfeld's questioning of the motives behind China's secret buildup was the biggest policy step the Pentagon has taken about China in over a decade."

But in the interview, Fallon insisted there was no rift.

Reports of a cleavage between the two are "news to me," Fallon said. "I think I'm doing everything I can to make sure that I'm in line with what the secretary wants to do."

Fallon characterizes efforts to implement a new U.S. "agreement in principle" with the Chinese to expand the military relationship between them as simply in the earliest stages.

"Because there's been virtually no relationship," Fallon says, "all of this takes time. And next steps would be to have a sit-down discussion at the [Defense Department] staff level, in which proposals could be put on the table and discussed and then we'd go from there. So we'll take it a step at a time."

"There's no way Fallon is going to get out ahead of the secretary of defense," says retired Rear Adm. Michael McDevitt, a China watcher and strategic studies director at the Center for Naval Analyses.

Others say Fallon appears to have done so unwittingly, but since the September meeting at the Pentagon, has worked hard to align his efforts with Rumsfeld's policies.

"If there was a disconnect, I don't think there is one now," one senior U.S. official said last month, speaking on condition of not being named.

Rumsfeld and the 'China hawks'

Still, Fallon faces a coterie of "China hawks" in Washington intent on sending a shot across the admiral's bow -- before he has a chance to formalize proposals with which they might differ, according to officials.

At the same time, the Pentagon's Asia-Pacific policy shop -- widely perceived as dominated by neo-conservatives under the Bush administration -- seems to be in no hurry to pursue potential opportunities for increased military engagement with China, regional experts tell ITP. Whether the reported sluggishness reflects classic bureaucratic foot-dragging or is by design -- perhaps reflecting a "go-slow" approach on Rumsfeld's part -- is open to debate.

On major issues like China, "I think the secretary's personal views largely explain the outcome you observe," says Kenneth Lieberthal, a professor at the University of Michigan and the top official on Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton administration. "If this secretary wants to get it done, people are likely to find a way to get it done."

Among some observers, the idea that Rumsfeld would approach any new steps to engage the Chinese with the greatest caution is unsurprising.

During the secretary's visit last month to Beijing, "I don't think there was much agreement about moving ahead on a full-scale, [military-to-military] engagement program," says Kurt Campbell, a deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific during the Clinton administration. He says his experience made him somewhat of a skeptic about the value of U.S.-China military exchanges.

In the late 1990s, "almost every week someone of high level was going back and forth" to visit with the Chinese, says Campbell, now senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "I think the days of those kinds of engagements between the United States and China are in the past."

That may come as good news to those who take a more hawkish view, convinced the United States will someday find itself at war with the Chinese.

"The Clinton administration just opened the doors with them," says Paul Berkowitz, a staff aide to Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). "We're going to go to war with them eventually."

Asked to respond to the idea that war with China is inevitable and increased military contact could aid a future adversary, Fallon said, "Well, that's an opinion that I don't share. It's that simple."

The commander says lingering tension and distrust between the two nations represent the strongest argument for opening up dialogue, laying the groundwork to avoid the kind of misunderstandings that might someday lead to war.

"It seems to me that this relationship could go anywhere across the spectrum," Fallon told ITP. "But if you look at what's at stake here and you look at the number of people involved . . . it makes an awful lot of sense to try to at least have a shot at communicating directly with people, having them have some understanding of what we're thinking."

The current absence of dialogue means both sides may be "making assumptions without a whole lot of knowledge, probably assuming that things are a certain way without really knowing, and [harboring] suspicion and all of those negative factors that come from being on [one] side of a wall and not having any communication with those on the other side," says Fallon, a strike pilot with combat experience in Europe and the Persian Gulf.

The commander said he is unaware of specific disputes with his approach, but hinted any such critics may be disingenuous.

"For several decades now, it's been the policy of the United States to try to get China out of their box, to come out from behind their walls, and to engage in the world and become part of that international community," Fallon said. "And it looks like they've done that. So now for us to suddenly decide that we don't like this is pretty interesting."

'Unease across the political spectrum'

Though China hawks are the ones most actively throwing darts at Fallon's perspectives, concerns that the Bush administration take a clear-eyed approach to engaging the PLA extend to moderates, as well.

"When anybody prematurely expresses confidence on China's future, it causes unease across the political spectrum, not just hawks," says Michael Pillsbury, a longtime China expert said by officials to reflect Rumsfeld's thinking about that nation.

Indeed, a wide variety of observers say China took advantage of Pentagon candor during the 1990s and failed to reciprocate in terms of opening up its own facilities and allowing its officers to talk.

Prior Pacific Command chiefs have traditionally been thwarted in their attempts to establish meaningful discussion between mid-ranking officers, Pillsbury says. Rather, the Chinese have typically offered up for exchange only PLA officers who "are about to retire," those "who can't say a word," and a dozen or more "usual suspects" who have traveled repeatedly to the United States, according to Pillsbury.

"There's been a lot of close-hold activities and a reluctance -- for who knows what reasons -- to replicate that same kind of [U.S.] transparency," Fallon acknowledges.

China's approach to the exchanges reflects, in part, its basic defense strategy, according to some experts.

In the United States, "the way that we deter is by showing everyone what we've got and flexing our muscles in a very visible way," says Campbell. "[For] a country that has lesser capabilities, like China, I think one of the ways they deter is by maintaining a certain amount of uncertainty about what they actually have and what they can do."

Similarly, retired Army Col. Larry Wortzel -- who was a military attache in Beijing during the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown -- supports expanded engagement and does not see war with China as inevitable.

But Worzel thinks Fallon places too much emphasis on the benefits the United States might gain from mil-to-mil exchanges and, at the same time, seems unconcerned by the risks.

"I believe Adm. Fallon has simply lost the balance on how to treat China," says Wortzel, now a visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington. "He may be far too aggressive in his desire to engage with China."

What few people have noticed, though, is that Fallon is also quietly moving to beef up Pacific Command capabilities where he sees disconnects or shortfalls, other defense officials tell ITP.

Asked to describe these efforts, Fallon said: "It seems to me that we better ensure that if we're on the hook to potentially have courses of action to deal with contingencies, that these courses of action make sense; they have a foundation in fact [such] that they can reasonably be executed; and most importantly that the assumptions upon which we build these things are something that we understand and would agree."

Defense analysts say any top commander potentially charged with responsibility for leading U.S. forces to battle -- like Fallon in the Asia-Pacific region -- would want to develop the best understanding of a possible adversary's perceptions and concerns.

"Every Pacific commander, with the enormous consequences of miscommunication and misjudgment in mind, seeks to get not only good intelligence but also up-close judgment of the personality and perceptions of the people they have to deal with," says Lieberthal. In Washington, "those activities may seem less vital," he says.

"I think when Secretary Rumsfeld first came to power, his view was that the [Pacific commander] was spending a lot of time on military diplomacy and engagement. And he wanted to see his senior military commanders working on war plans and other scenarios," says Campbell. "What we're witnessing is the pendulum swinging back ever so slightly. Secretary Rumsfeld and his team want to see slightly more military diplomacy and [spend] not as much time on simply thinking about the inevitability of military conflict between the United States and China."

William Perry, a defense secretary under the Clinton administration, says he is "very pleased" to see Rumsfeld move in that direction.

"I think if we define [the Chinese] as an enemy, they will become an enemy," Perry told ITP in an interview this week. "But it is not in either our interest or their interest to do that. The best interests of both nations would be served by working constructively together."

At least based on what the Pacific commander has seen in the region thus far, that is the tack he is pushing.

"I think that if we had a choice of sitting and doing absolutely nothing or of trying to engage these people, to bring them along, to not just have them a part of the international community but actually making major contributions to that community, it seems to me this is pretty much of a no-brainer," Fallon said. "There is just so much potential that I think that it doesn't make a lot of sense to just sit on the sidelines."