- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Chinese and U.S. navies recently conducted their first joint search-and-rescue exercise, raising hopes of broader defense cooperation between the two countries. We need to remain cautious regarding the likely benefits of these military exchanges. Recurring problems have derailed past efforts to establish a sustained Sino-American defense dialogue. These difficulties will continue to bedevil their military cooperation.

The recent engagement included a simple passing exercise near Hawaii and the simulated rescue of a distressed ship off the coast of San Diego. Chinese and American sailors also practiced new communication protocols between their ships. In recent months, the two militaries have intensified other collaborative activities. For example, in June 2006, Chinese observers attended the U.S.-led “Valid Shield 2006” exercises in Guam.

Some senior American military officers advocate relaxing congressional restrictions on bilateral defense contacts to widen their scope. One proponent of deeper military engagement is Adm. William Fallon, who has visited China three times since taking charge of U.S. Pacific Command less than two years ago. Adm. Fallon argues that, since “China isn’t a clone of the Soviet Union,” the U.S. military can safely conduct a broader range of ties with it.

Actually, several factors make the Chinese armed forces a more difficult dialogue partner than the former Soviet military. Whereas by the late 1980s Soviet officials and officers widely accepted the value of superpower arms control, Chinese leaders remain averse to genuine defense transparency and have long resisted U.S. calls to provide more information about their military spending. Chinese policymakers fear greater transparency could provide Americans with insights into their military vulnerabilities. They also adhere to a historical tradition that values strategic deception as a tool against potential adversaries like the United States.

Although the Chinese government has begun issuing white papers on its security and defense policies, these documents are rich in generalities about China’s good intentions and sparse in specifics about its actual practices.

In contrast to the Gorbachev-era Soviet Union, Chinese leaders still view their country as a rising military power. For this reason, they do not want to codify existing disparities in military force capacities or operating patterns, which favor the United States. China has refused to join the Russian-American strategic arms reduction process on the grounds that Moscow and Washington must first make much deeper cuts in their larger nuclear arsenals.

In addition, Beijing has proven reluctant to accept Washington’s longstanding proposal for a direct hotline between the Pentagon and the Chinese Defense Ministry. Whereas U.S. officials believe such a link could facilitate crisis management, China’s political leaders want to ensure tight control over military communications during an emergency.

The Sino-American defense relationship has traditionally served as the proverbial canary in the coal mine — acutely vulnerable to external shocks. Adverse political events have repeatedly led China and the United States to curtail military contacts as a form of signaling or retaliation. Prominent incidents have included the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, the 1999 accidental bombing of China’s Belgrade Embassy by NATO, and the 2001 collision of a Chinese warplane with a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in international airspace near China’s Hainan Island.

Despite their recently renewed military dialogue, another Taiwan confrontation, a flare-up in the Chinese-Japanese East China Sea dispute or some other crisis could again cause Beijing or Washington to freeze defense ties.

The Soviet case does show it can take years of sustained engagement to reshape the military practices of great powers such as China. Until then, American officials should hedge against the failure of U.S. shaping strategies toward China by reinforcing defense ties with Australia, India and Japan. They also should continue to assess military exercises, reciprocal exchanges, and other defense activities with China on a case-by-case basis and with a jaundiced eye.


Mr. Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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