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FISHER: China’s ‘new relationship’ trap
Beijing’s overture implies U.S. concessions
Obama administration officials are apparently pleased with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan’s recent visit to the United States, yielding agreements to increase high-level contacts, affirming a new working group to address cybersecurity issues, and even to begin humanitarian and disaster-relief exercises. Gen. Chang had a different goal: to sell his concept for a “new type of military relationship,” an idea that Washington should be quick to counter.
During his Aug. 19 news conference with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Gen. Chang used a likely pre-arranged question from a Xinhua reporter to explain China’s idea for a new relationship, which is a corollary to the “new type of great-power relationship” that Chinese Communist Party and People’s Liberation Army leader Xi Jinping is now starting to define for the United States.
Gen. Chang proceeded to list five aspects for the new relationship: respect for “the other’s vital interests,” “cooperation and win-win,” “mutual trust” rather than “mutual suspicion,” “substantive exchanges in wider areas,” and a commitment to “work with other international community members to strengthen communication.”
This is pretty vague stuff, but for Washington, it likely means that regular concessions will be needed to feed continued good will from Beijing. For example, the Bush and Obama administrations have learned to “delay” necessary arms sales to democratic Taiwan, denying it new F-16 fighters it has sought since 2006. According to China's Defense Ministry spokesman, Gen. Chang made a veiled offer to move some of the 1,600 PLA missiles targeting Taiwan if the United States stops arms sales to the island, a non-concession given these missiles are very mobile. China’s new relationship may also require an end to the Pentagon’s congressionally mandated annual report on China’s military buildup since Beijing considers it full of “unwarranted accusations.”
The likely one-way nature of the new relationship was illustrated during the news conference by Gen. Chang himself when he baldly denied that China was a major source of pervasive global computer hacking. It has long been acknowledged that China is the greatest source of cyberwar against the West. On the same day as Gen. Chang’s news conference, a group of Japanese Diet members visiting Beijing were told by a PLA scholar that the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands were “within the range of its core interests,” a phrase usually identifying an interest for which China is willing to go to war. Under the new relationship, Washington could be obliged to defer to China’s very serious “core interests,” which have a habit of growing in number, at the expense of U.S. military alliances in Asia.
China’s latest effort to employ vague constructs that appear benign, but which are designed to cloak hostility, is not a new tactic. It has been employed by communist parties since Vladimir Lenin’s 1917 Decree on Peace that directed “peaceful coexistence” be pursued with powerful nations while assisting proletarian revolutions within them. Zhou Enlai, China’s first foreign minister under Mao Zedong, also formulated five principles: mutual respect for sovereignty, mutual non-aggression, non-interference in internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence. These principles, which also shine through in the new relationship, have been molded by successive Chinese leaders to project peaceful intent while pursuing less-than-peaceful goals.
With this background, the new relationship can be viewed as China’s new contribution to the long-running U.S.-Chinese soap opera of military-to-military relations, in which the U.S. side seeks “confidence,” while the Chinese side seeks “advantage.” A substantial and patient U.S. effort to “engage” the People’s Liberation Army since the 1980s has only recently started to yield the beginning of useful PLA transparency, but what if this same effort had been directed at the party? After all, it is the party that firmly controls the army and fears the implications of real transparency the most. It is doubtful the new relationship will lead to real assurance or “confidence” in China’s military intentions as its greater purpose is to help U.S. political and military leaders “accept” Beijing’s strategic demands while stifling their potential criticism of China’s intent or actions.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping may have another nine years to further define his “new type of great-power relationship” and its military corollary. It is no accident that China is promoting these concepts at a time when it is widely perceived as potentially rivaling the global military power of the United States in the next decade, a perception Washington reinforces with its sequestration-enforced unilateral disarmament. While defense-budget relief may have to wait for better definition of national political priorities, there is no reason for American political leaders to stop telling the truth about China’s actions or to be limited by a Chinese-defined “new type of military relationship.”
Richard D. Fisher, Jr. is a senior fellow with the International Assessment and Strategy Center and author of “China’s Military Modernization: Building for Regional and Global Reach (Stanford, 2010).
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