By MICHAEL WINES [New York Times] - Published: June 8, 2010
If anyone ever doubted it, a testy exchange at a Singapore conference last weekend made it clear: Relations between the American and Chinese militaries are in a very deep freeze.
What is genuinely in doubt is whether that is but a burr in the two nations’ broader relationship, or a portent.
The verbal fusillade unfolded Saturday at the Shangri-La Dialogue, a meeting of the defense ministers of 28 Asia-Pacific nations attended by, among others, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Gen. Ma Xiaotian, the deputy chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army.
General Ma laced his speech with barely disguised jabs at the United States. “A cold-war mentality still exists” in unnamed nations, he said, with “the threat to use force in international relations and interference in other countries’ internal affairs” — code language for American arms sales to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory.
In his speech, Mr. Gates was even more blunt. Military ties between the nations are “held hostage” by the Taiwan issue, he said, even though American arms sales to Taiwan “have been a reality for decades.” China cannot change that reality, he said — and in any case, Washington does not support Taiwan’s independence from the mainland.
That exchange followed China’s formal rejection last week of Mr. Gates’s proposal to stop in Beijing during his current swing through Asia. And that followed a Chinese admiral’s unexpectedly biting lecture on American “hegemony,” in a private session during last month’s Strategic and Economic Dialogue in Beijing, that left American diplomats furious and appeared to signal divergent attitudes between China’s civilian and military leaders.
Taken separately, the episodes mean little. Experts who speak of Chinese-American military relations regularly use words like “albatross” and “millstone” to describe their impact on cooperation between Washington and Beijing. Suspicion and, at times, hostility define meetings between military leaders.
But there is a context: an increasing assertiveness in global economic and diplomatic affairs by Chinese leaders. Advocates of a tougher and more nationalistic China have gained influence in the past 6 to 12 months, and their impact is being felt more in both foreign and domestic policies.
To some Western analysts, that suggests that the Obama administration’s fundamental approach toward China — to make China a responsible partner in global affairs by giving Beijing a larger stake in solving international problems — needs retooling.
“There has been a real sea change and hardening of attitude in Chinese government thinking about relations with the United States over the past six or eight months,” said David Shambaugh, a leading expert on the Chinese military and the Communist Party at George Washington University. “Under these circumstances, Washington needs to undertake a comprehensive review of its China strategy and policy from top to bottom.”
Stephanie Kleine-Ahlbrandt, a Beijing analyst with the International Crisis Group, said the Obama administration’s hopes for cooperation with Beijing “have been more optimistic than current scenarios warrant.”
“China and the U.S. continue to have fundamentally different values, goals and capabilities,” she said, citing China’s reluctance to press for the truth in the sinking of a South Korean ship, an attack that an international investigation determined was the work of North Korea.
Signs of hardening Chinese policies are easy to find. Beijing recently adopted a new, tougher stance on its claims to disputed islands in the South China Sea, telling the Philippines, Indonesia, Vietnam and other claimants that the islands are a “core national interest” beyond settling in regional negotiations. China’s demand is to bargain nation by nation, giving Beijing a decided advantage over smaller neighbors.
The United States has struggled with limited success to recruit China as a partner in United Nations actions, not only against North Korea but also against Iran’s nuclear program. Both American and European businesses are increasingly agitated over what they regard as unfair curbs on their ability to compete with domestic companies in China’s vast and growing market, despite Chinese guarantees.
Yet it is not clear that the Chinese military’s hostility reflects China’s diplomatic strategy, much less dictates it. Part of the problem is that no one outside Beijing is sure how Chinese leaders draft their foreign policy toward the United States, which, by Beijing’s measure, is far and away its most important partner.
“Many, if not all, officials of the U.S. government believe the current situation is one in which the military has the bit in its mouth and is taking the lead on this issue,” said Michael Swaine, a China scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. In their assessment, Mr. Swaine said, “the Communist Party and the foreign affairs apparatus is not terribly happy about it, but is going along with it.”
The truth is that nobody knows. Policy toward the United States — especially military policy — is concocted in a black box at the government’s highest levels, Mr. Swaine and others said.
Mr. Gates may have given Chinese military officials a needed slap in the face with his remarks in Singapore. Or he may have overstepped his bounds.
“Mr. Gates is a great statesman and always very frank,” said Shi Yinhong, an expert on Chinese-American relations at Renmin University in Beijing. “But to deal with the Chinese, maybe he makes his language too frank. Chinese leaders, and especially Chinese generals, may find it quite difficult to take.”