By Zhiqun Zhu

Noting improvements in cross-Taiwan Strait relations since May 2008, Admiral Timothy Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command which is responsible for preserving security, stability, freedom and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, remarked recently that he could now sleep well most nights. A direct result of warming cross-Taiwan Strait relations is that the likelihood of a U.S.-China military clash over Taiwan has greatly diminished. However, military relations remain the weakest link in the ever-expanding U.S.-China bilateral ties.

U.S.-China relations have developed tremendously since the two countries established formal diplomatic ties 30 years ago on Jan. 1, 1979. Most notably, the economies have become heavily interdependent and have reached a point where they have to deal with the global economic downturn together. Politically, top leaders meet frequently either at each other's capital or on the sidelines of major multilateral forums. To highlight the importance of bilateral economic and political relations, the two nations have held strategic economic dialogue and the U.S.-China Senior Dialogue on political and security affairs for several years.

Educational and cultural exchanges are also blossoming across the Pacific. Chinese remain one of the largest international student bodies on U.S. college campuses, and the number of American students studying or preparing to study in China has been growing exponentially in recent years.

Chinese laobaixing (ordinary people) have always been enamored with American culture and society. Barack Obama's election as the first non-white American president excites many Chinese people as well. American universities are also taking the lead in housing Confucius Institutes. As of the end of 2008, there are nearly 40 such centers for teaching Chinese language and culture in the U.S .which are sponsored by the Office of Chinese Language Council International - or Hanban - in Beijing.

The weakest link
While developments in all these areas are truly encouraging, a glaring weak link in this dynamic bilateral relationship remains - military ties. It is in military relations that distrust and suspicion run the deepest between the two countries. And from China's perspective, continuing U.S. weapons sales to Taiwan remain the biggest obstacle in bilateral relations as they are seen to undermine Chinese interests in national unity and sovereignty.

The two militaries experienced several serious incidents in the past decade or so that almost brought them to direct clashes. From the Taiwan Strait crisis of 1995-96 to the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in the former Yugoslavia and the 2001 air collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane near Hainan Island, the two militaries have had a bumpy relationship.

Even today, in the military establishment of both countries many still consider the other as the greatest potential enemy and have used it as an easy excuse to request higher defense budgets. Among others, the U.S. Department of Defense's annual report to the U.S. Congress on the military power of the People's Republic of China tends to exaggerate the potential threat from China, whose military budget has been growing at a double-digit rate in the past decade, ostensibly in preparation for a Taiwan Strait showdown.

Relations between the two militaries have steadily improved since Sept. 11, 2001, as the US shifted its strategic attention to the Middle East. The two navies unprecedentedly conducted joint search and rescue exercises in 2006 in the South China Sea.

During his visit to Beijing in early November 2007, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and his Chinese counterpart Cao Gangchuan formally agreed to set up a military hotline. Still, suspicions remain and this volatile military relationship has not been immune to disruptions in political ties.

At the end of November 2007, for example, the USS Kitty Hawk's scheduled visit to Hong Kong was rejected by the Chinese government, disappointing soldiers and sailors onboard and their anxious families who had expected to spend Thanksgiving with their loved ones in Hong Kong. The military relationship entered a frosty period again. The Chinese government never gave a clear answer to the question of why the visit was turned down. Many believe it was in retaliation for the U.S. Congress awarding the Congressional Gold Medal - the highest civilian honor - to the Dalai Lama a month earlier.

The two militaries did not resume regular exchanges until March 2008. As military contacts increase and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) becomes more confident and more transparent, the U.S. seems to be more understanding of China's growing military budget. As U.S. Marine Corps commandant General James Conway commented to Newsweek after his visit to China in April 2008, "China is a big fish. And I accept any nation, especially with the industrial might and the economic might that China has, has a reasonable expectation to be able to protect themselves. I think it's fitting that China has a substantial military." Many recognize that China's plan to accelerate the pace and scope of its military has largely been fueled by a possible Taiwan Strait conflict in which the U.S. is likely to intervene. As cross-Taiwan Strait relations have stabilized, U.S. concern for such a scenario has eased.

New opportunities
The May 2008 Sichuan earthquake, though tragic, provided an opportunity for the two militaries to resume high-level contact. After Admiral Keating talked to Lieutenant General Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the General Staff of the PLA, through the military hotline, the U.S. Pacific Command dispatched air cargoes to send rescue equipment and rescue teams to earthquake-hit areas. The U.S. also provided both commercial and military satellite images of the earthquake region to China. However, China temporarily suspended military contacts with the U.S. again in October 2008 in protest over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan valued at US$6.5 billion.

But the current international fight against pirates provides new opportunities to enhance cooperation and coordination between the two militaries. Pirates have become extremely active off the African coast since the early 2000s. Vessels of many countries, including China's, have been attacked by pirates on the high seas. In 2008 alone, more than 100 ships have been attacked by pirates off the Somali coast and over 240 sailors held for ransom. According to China's Foreign Ministry, 20 percent of Chinese ships passing through the waters near the Somali coast had been attacked by pirates in the first 11 months of 2008.

In December, as China was preparing to send warships to the Gulf of Aden and the waters off the Somali coast to fight against piracy and defend China's commercial ships, the U.S. welcomed Beijing's move and expressed its interest in cooperating with China.

Keating of the U.S. Pacific Command held out hopes for a revival in military relations. "I hope the Chinese do [send ships to the Gulf of Aden] and we'll work closely with them," Keating said during a briefing at the Foreign Press Center in Washington on Dec. 18. "I think this could be a springboard for a resumption of dialogue between PLA forces and US Pacific Command forces." He also revealed that his command had been in touch with other agencies and military commands to provide information to the PLA Navy should it decide to deploy warships in the Gulf of Aden.

The year 2009 will certainly be important, as the two great powers continue to work together to meet the economic and security challenges facing the world. The U.S.-China relationship has become central to each nation's interests and to maintaining peace, stability and prosperity in Asia-Pacific and the world. As the two countries commemorate the 30th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations, it is high time for them to upgrade military relations, dispel misunderstanding and deepen cooperation to build long-lasting peace in the next 30 years and beyond.
Contact: Division of Communications

Posted Dec. 23, 2008


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