The Pentagon’s military-exchange program with China for 2010 was canceled earlier this year because of Beijing’s anger at arms sales to Taiwan, and military ties remain in deep freeze after the unusually combative exchange in Singapore last week between a Chinese general and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates.
In remarks to a security conference June 4, Mr. Gates defended U.S. arms sales to Taiwan as legal under U.S. law and carried out carefully by successive administrations.
Mr. Gates said he hoped Chinese opposition to arms sales to the island that Beijing views as a renegade province “will go away.”
“But we will maintain our obligations and, frankly, I would very much like to … see the military-to-military relationship cease being the sole focus of the response to these sales because I think that there is great opportunity and great benefit in a greater dialogue between us,” Mr. Gates said.
The problem, according to the defense secretary, is that the Chinese military is disunited with senior Communist Party leaders, who appear more open to military exchanges.
Of the Chinese military, he said: “I think they are reluctant to engage with us on a broad level. The [People’s Liberation Army] is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China.”
However, a senior Chinese general confronted Mr. Gates at the conference and stated that China was not to blame for the differences and blamed the United States for turning China into an enemy through the arms sales to Taiwan.
Maj. Gen. Zhu Chenghu, director of China’s National Defense University, a frequent stop for U.S. military visitors, made the unusual public attack on the United States at the Singapore conference, stating that U.S. arms sales, totaling more than $12 billion in offers since 2008, are meant “to prevent the unification of China.”
“I believe this sort of arms sale sends to the Chinese the wrong signal; that is, the Chinese are taking the Americans as partners as well as friends, while you Americans take the Chinese as the enemy,” he said.
Mr. Gates was snubbed by Beijing after he had sought to visit China during his Asian trip last week. China’s government refused to permit the stopover. The snub came despite comments to U.S. reporters by aides to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton who said China was prepared to accept Mr. Gates’ travel.
The events of the last several weeks are the latest installment in a long-running effort by the Pentagon to mollify the Communist Party-ruled military through a series of exchanges, meetings and ship visits involving senior and mid level military officers.
The problem, according to officials close to the program, is that the United States sees the exchanges as a way to develop friendly relations, while China’s military has used the exchanges for intelligence-gathering and technology identification for its major military buildup.
“The Pentagon is totally naive about this relationship,” said a defense official involved in the program.
An annual Pentagon report to Congress on military exchanges with China’s People’s Liberation Army reveals that the Chinese military has been granted access to U.S. military expertise despite a legal prohibition on exchanges that could bolster Beijing’s power projection capabilities.
The exchanges also provided Chinese military visitors with a look at key strategic communications, logistics and supply capabilities, management methods and tactical combat operations, as well as nuclear policy and strategy, according to a review of the programs.
The most recent list of recent military exchanges revealed a planned increase in the program from 35 visits and meetings in 2008 to 85 in 2009.
Still, China reacted harshly twice in recent years to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan by cutting off military ties, first in October 2008, when exchanges were halted for four months to protest U.S. defensive arms sales to Taiwan. A few exchanges resumed in 2009, but China’s military again raised tensions with the U.S. military through a series of naval encounters the Pentagon called provocations involving Chinese ships harassing U.S. naval survey vessels in the open seas.
In January, the Chinese government abruptly canceled military meetings in response to the announced sale of $6.4 billion in U.S. defensive weapons to Taiwan, despite the fact that the intention to sell the defense goods had been made public years earlier.
The military-exchange program with China was launched in the mid-1980s as an outgrowth of the tacit alliance against the Soviet Union during the 1970s and 1980s.
That ended with the Chinese military crackdown on unarmed pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989. The massacre led to economic sanctions and an end to military exchanges, which were not restored until the administration of President Clinton in the mid-1990s. After that, exchanges expanded rapidly.
During the Clinton administration, Chinese high-level strategists and spymasters such as Gen. Xiong Guangkai, a senior intelligence official, and PLA war-fighting commanders were given access to some of America’s most sophisticated training and doctrine facilities.
The unprecedented access was exploited by China to gain valuable war-fighting expertise that has been used to modernize its once largely ground force-oriented troops and outdated naval and coastal defense forces. Today, China’s military is rapidly becoming a major high-technology, combined-arms force with global power projection and new and advanced strategic nuclear attack capabilities.
Congress stepped in to restrict the exchanges in 1999. Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican, and Republican Reps. Dana Rohrabacher of California and Dan Burton of Indiana drafted legislation that passed in 2000 limiting PLA access to key U.S. defense facilities. The aim was to prevent the exchange program from being used to build up Chinese forces.
Support for the legislation in Congress was bolstered by a damaging incident in the late 1990s. At that time, a visiting Chinese military officer asked a Navy officer to identify the most vulnerable point on an aircraft carrier. The officer told the Chinese visitor that carriers were most vulnerable underneath their hulls, close to ammunition storage areas.
Some time after the encounter, U.S. intelligence agencies detected China’s military purchase of Russian-made wake-homing torpedoes that are capable of hitting vulnerable points on carriers.
Mr. Smith, a Navy veteran, said in an interview that the compromise of data on carrier vulnerabilities was “one of the worst examples” of unrestricted military exchanges with China.
“Military-sensitive information has always been divulged by the U.S. military in these exchanges as a means to supposedly reduce tensions between our nations,” Mr. Smith said. “The Chinese regard them as an opportunity to do espionage.”
The law, passed as part of the 2000 Defense Authorization Act, states that exchanges must be limited if “that exchange of contact would create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure.”
It listed more than 10 categories that were offlimits to Chinese military visitors, including force projection, advanced combined arms and joint combat operations, advanced logistics surveillance and reconnaissance operations, joint war fighting and other activities related to transformation in warfare.
A Pentagon spokesman said the exchanges follow the legal guidelines of the 2000 law and limits are reviewed and read by senior military and defense officials. “The exchanges do not provide China with tactical knowledge such as logistical improvements or communications skills and technologies,” the spokesman said.
However, a review of recent military exchanges with China shows numerous cases of what appear to be violations of the law during 2008. Among the questionable activities listed in the report are:
c An April 7-11 U.S. ship visit to China for communications exercises.
c A “dialogue on nuclear policy and strategy in the U.S.” in April.
c Pacific-area senior officer logistics seminar planning group with Chinese officers in Malaysia.
c A Pacific Rim air-power symposium in the U.S.
The 2009 Pentagon report states that U.S. participants have sought to promote “U.S. values and regional security objectives and encouraged China to act as a partner in addressing common security challenges.”
However, the report stated that unlike the U.S. military, China’s military visitors used the exchange program to “gain insights into potential U.S. vulnerabilities, as well as strengths in modern warfare that China seeks to adopt.”
Some analysts have questioned the exchanges. Randall Shriver, a former official with the Defense and State departments and chief executive of the Project 2049 Institute, told a congressional China commission that the exchanges are not working.
“U.S. military-to-military relationship with China should be scaled back until China is more responsive to our calls for constructive steps related to the security environment in the Taiwan Strait,” Mr. Shriver said. “After nearly 30 years of interaction, the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship has proven to be of very limited value to the United States.”
John Tkacik, a former State Department specialist on China and Taiwan, said it is naive to think the exchanges will influence Chinese military behavior. “Members of the PLA who interact with foreign forces are well trained to be absolutely loyal to the government’s positions and strictly disseminate the party line on issues such as peaceful intention of their massive military buildup and their right to coerce ‘unification’ with Taiwan,” he said.