China’s defense minister on Monday rebuffed an offer from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to hold strategic nuclear talks, saying military dialogue will be limited to counterpiracy, counterterrorism and peacekeeping cooperation.
Mr. Gates, the first defense secretary to visit China since 2005, told reporters in Beijing after a two-hour meeting with Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie that he is “pleased” China will “consider and study” his plan to launch a strategic-security dialogue on nuclear forces, missile defense, space and cyberwarfare issues.
But Gen. Liang largely dismissed the idea of holding substantive nuclear and security talks.
“There exists quite a number of forms of dialogue between China and the United States,” he said, noting the strategic economic dialogue and other annual defense talks.
“The Chinese side noticed the proposal of Secretary Gates on the conducting of the strategic-security dialogue, and we are studying that,” he said.
Former State Department official John Tkacik, a career China specialist, said, “‘Consider and study’ is diplomatic-speak for ‘no way, no how.’”
Gen. Liang and Mr. Gates did agree to boost cooperation in nontraditional security areas, such as counterterrorism, peacekeeping, counterpiracy and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.
China’s military is engaged in a large-scale buildup of its strategic nuclear forces, with as many as three new long-range nuclear missiles and an unknown number of nuclear weapons. It also is building missiles that can destroy satellites and maneuver warheads that can target aircraft carriers.
On the eve of Mr. Gates’ visit, the Chinese also unveiled a new advanced stealth jet.
Mr. Gates said in response to a reporter’s question about the U.S. building up its forces in response to China’s buildup, “Your question, again, goes to the importance of the proposal that I have made for an in-depth strategic dialogue between the United States and China, between our two militaries.
“I think that kind of a dialogue, really focused on the areas that I have talked about — nuclear, missile defense, space and cyber — all create an environment in which the chances of a miscalculation or a misunderstanding are significantly reduced,” Mr. Gates said.
Since taking office in 2006, Mr. Gates has tried to persuade China to hold strategic military talks, saying they would reduce mistrust and miscalculation.
However, China’s military has rebuffed the talks since at least 2006. Defense officials said China’s military fears such talks will disclose information about its nuclear forces and weapons that would be used in targeting or cyber-attacks during a future conflict.
At a summit meeting in April 2006 between President George W. Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao, Mr. Bush directly appealed to the Chinese leader to send China’s strategic-missile commander to visit the United States as a first step in strategic dialogue. Mr. Hu agreed, but so far, the commander has not visited.
Mr. Hu will visit Washington beginning Jan. 19, and the issue of military exchanges and security dialogue is expected to be raised in meetings with President Obama.
Mr. Tkacik, the former State Department official, said the Pentagon hopes China will explain its secret nuclear strategy and forces in security talks. But the United States reduced the likelihood that China would join such talks by holding a one-sided dialogue, such as giving China’s military recent briefings on U.S. nuclear strategy — the same as those given to U.S. allies.
China’s refusal to engage and share information on its military “all boils down to the fact that we’ve been way too indulgent with the Chinese,” Mr. Tkacik said.
“For the past 20 years, we’ve given the Chinese information briefings and tours of our military facilities without demanding any reciprocity. And as a result, we haven’t gotten any reciprocity,” Mr. Tkacik said.
Past military talks between China and the United States involved Chinese officers reading talking points and protesting U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, according to defense officials who have participated in the talks.
The exchanges were undermined by China’s dispatch of large numbers of intelligence collectors to gather war-fighting information at U.S. military facilities. As a result, Congress in 1999 outlawed exchanges that could bolster Beijing’s nuclear and power-projection capabilities.
China cut off military relations with the Pentagon twice in the past three years. On both occasions, the cutoff was part of Beijing’s protest of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the democratic island nation Beijing regards as its territory.
Gen. Liang was asked if ties to the U.S. military would no longer be halted in response to U.S. arms sales. He did not answer directly.
The general said U.S. arms sales “seriously damaged China’s core interests, and we do not want to see that happen again; neither do we hope that the U.S. arms sales to Taiwan will again and further disrupt our bilateral and military-to-military relationship.”
Edward Timperlake, a former Pentagon technology security official, said nontraditional military exchanges with China must be handled with caution.
“Military-to-military exchanges at the senior-officer level are one thing,” Mr. Timperlake said. “But at the tactical level, especially when they involve U.S. military training and tactics, [the exchanges] constantly have been all one way in China’s favor.
“A lot of U.S. combat lessons learned are being paid for in blood by our troops. What good does it do to share that information with a rising adversary who is rapidly modernizing? It makes absolutely no sense,” he said.