Billed as the most important and substantial military exchange visit with the United States in nine years, the grand tour from Friday through Thursday by a large Chinese military delegation – led by Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie – received royal treatment at the Pentagon this week.
U.S. defense and military authorities appear eager to establish a credible and reliable means of communication with the highest echelons of the world’s largest and strongest military. And the Pentagon’s method is to try to make the Chinese happy by allowing visits to key U.S. military facilities.
“The Americans are giving us a very substantial agenda, allowing us to see their front-line units, especially front-line operational units,” said Rear Adm.
Yin Zhuo of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy on China’s state television May 5.
“The Americans normally don’t let other countries’ guests see their front-line units,” he added with glee.
Among the facilities the Chinese delegation – up to 24 people – was allowed to visit were the San Diego Naval Base, the U.S. Southern Command headquarters, the 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force at Camp Lejeune and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, North Carolina, in addition to an extensive meeting with Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta and a stop for a meal with cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y.
A senior Defense official at the Pentagon told reporters on Tuesday there was no specific “deliverable” to emerge from this tour.
The objective was “maintaining a sustained senior-level dialogue between our two militaries, maintaining open channels of communication,” the official said. The visit “offers opportunities to build mutual understanding, improve and build towards greater mutual trust,” the official added.
The vagueness surrounding the details of the extensive tour fits well with the bureaucratic opacity of the visiting general. Gen. Liang, despite his title, is China’s defense chief in name only and has no command authority or decision power over important military affairs. His job is mainly ceremonial, and primarily the top official in charge of defense education and militia affairs. The Defense Ministry he runs is popularly known in China as the “Three No’s Ministry” – no staff, no specific offices in charge of anything, and even no building of its own.
Instead, China’s Defense Ministry is a shadow organization completely under the control of the real command authority, the Chinese Communist Party’s Central Military Commission, chaired by Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, with Vice President Xi Jinping and Gens. Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou as the powerful vice chairmen. Gen. Liang is ranked only fifth in seniority in the CMC as an ordinary member.
The Chinese delegation includes Gen. Zhang Youxia of the Shenyang Military Region and Maj. Gen. Peng Yong of the Xinjiang Military Region. Their participation is China’s gesture to hopefully reciprocate for the Pentagon’s generosity in sharing two common grounds of concern with the Americans: North Korea and global anti-terrorism campaign.
Gen. Zhang’s Shenyang Military Region in China’s Northeast is the one most involved in dealing with unpredictable North Korea, and Gen. Peng’s turf in the volatile Muslim region of Xinjiang makes him China’s top military operational commander over restive Central Asia and the ongoing anti-terrorist campaigns in that region, including Afghanistan and Pakistan.
But the commonality is far overshadowed by China’s simultaneous surge in war hysteria rhetoric against the Philippines, with explicit and ferocious attacks in Chinese state media portraying the United States as Manila’s “puppet master” against China.
The moment Gen. Liang landed on U.S. soil, China’s entire propaganda machine began running full speed with threats against the Philippines and “imminent action” in the midst of a four-week old naval standoff over the disputed Scarborough, or Huangyan, Shoals in the Spratly Islands chain off the coast of the Philippines. The main point of the rhetorical attacks is focused on the United States where Beijing’s generals are being feted with champagne and red carpets.
“United States igniting the Conflict between Philippines and China,” read Tuesday’s headline in the Peoples’ Daily, official mouthpiece of the Party’s Central Committee.
“The U.S. government is the ultimate source of China’s troubles with its neighbors,” stated the more vehemently anti-U.S. Global Times, a subsidiary of the People’s Daily, on Monday. “In dealing with Sino-U.S. bilateral relationship,” the Global Times continued, “we especially need a hawk such as Defense Minister Liang Guanglie to send a strong signal to [the U.S.] to make it stop in fear its strategy of containing China’s development and rise.”
To add more “resoluteness” to China’s pique against the Filipinos, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying warned through the official Xinhua news agency on Tuesday that “China is fully prepared to respond to anything the Philippine side does to escalate the situation.” The comment was widely viewed as a possible prelude to some type of military action.
Qiao Liang, one of China’s most outspoken anti-American generals and co-author of the book “Unrestricted Warfare,” was quoted Tuesday by China Times as saying China should think and act in the South China Sea like the United States does in dealing with rivals – with initiative and flexibility.
In fact, the Pentagon is very flexible. When asked by a Global Times reporter during the Pentagon briefing on Monday, the senior defense official refused to take a stand on the Manila-Beijing dispute.
“We don’t take a position on competing territorial claims over land features in the South China Sea, and we support a collaborative diplomatic process by all claimants to resolve their disputes without coercion,” the official said.
How did Global Times interpret this U.S. policy statement? “The fact that the U.S. is not objecting means the Americans are acquiescing our actions [against the Philippines],” the paper reported Monday.
• Miles Yu’s columns appear Thursdays. He can be reached at email@example.com.