American twist

Published : Feb 11, 2011 00:00 IST

China's new military capabilities worry the U.S. enough to talk of the PLA withholding information from the civilian leaders.

in Singapore

CHINA'S dramatic progress in two critical domains of post-modern warfare has induced the United States to seek a purely bilateral dialogue on hyper-sensitive strategic issues. This aspect of U.S. Defence Secretary Robert Gates' latest visit to Northeast Asia in the first half of January overshadowed the new trends in Washington's well-established military alliances with both Japan and South Korea.

Of particular concern to Gates, as he called on Chinese President Hu Jintao in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on January 11, was the ease with which his hosts conducted the first test flight of their new J-20 stealth fighter the same day. For the U.S., the timing was not the only troublesome aspect. A U.S. official said: When Secretary Gates raised the issue of the J-20 test in the meeting with President Hu it was clear that none of the [Chinese] civilians in the room had been informed [of the test] on a real-time basis.

Gates tried to put the matter in perspective in his speech to university students in Tokyo on January 13. He said: I don't question the [ruling Communist] Party's control of the People's Liberation Army [in China]. I have no doubts about the fact that President Hu Jintao is in command and in charge, but I know from our own system [in the U.S.] that sometimes there are disconnects with military information flowing to our civilian leaders.

Nonetheless, he did not give up his effort to portray China as a dangerously militarising state over which its civilian leaders might not have full control at any given time. Such a perception, a simple matter of deductive logic, was evident from his other comments in the same speech. Gates said: We [the U.S. authorities] think the civilian leadership [in China] was not aware of the aggressive approach by Chinese [naval] ships to the USNS Impeccable [a nuclear submarine] a few years ago. We also think the [Chinese] civilian leadership may not have known about the anti-satellite test that was conducted about three years ago.

Gates was alluding to China's sophisticated and successful anti-satellite test in outer space an event that demonstrated capabilities of deep military concern to the U.S. Washington does not accept as credible Beijing's assertions about not wanting to militarise outer space. The anti-satellite test and the test flight of the J-20 stealth fighter are two critical domains of China's post-modern warfare capabilities that have set the U.S. thinking deeply about its own security profile.

However, Gates sought to spin out such a specific U.S. military concern as a concern about gaps in China's governance. Unsurprisingly, he told the students in Tokyo that there were pretty clear indications that the top Chinese civilian leaders were unaware of the [latest] flight test of J-20.

It requires no insight to recognise Gates' effort to brief Japan, still a close U.S. ally, on his perceptions of China as a stridently militarising state. The subtle context cannot also be missed. On December 17 last year, Japan announced new national defence programme guidelines and, as a part of it, a 10-year plan to build a dynamic defence force to meet, among other challenges, the ongoing military modernisation by China.

China sees U.S. portrayals of its skyrocketing militarisation as the latest, perhaps sophisticated, version of America's by-now-routine bogey about the China threat. For long, the post-Cold War China factor served as the glue for the U.S.-Japan military alliance, which, in Gates' words, is an indestructible force for stability in East Asia, China's native region. However, in recent times the alliance has come in for greater scrutiny in the Japanese public domain. It is in this context that even the present centre-left government in Japan emphasised its own considered plans to further enhance and develop [its] indispensable alliance with the U.S..

Taking advantage of this policy ambience, Gates has tried to influence Japanese public opinion by projecting China's military modernisation in the manner that he did. He also felt the need to reassure the Japanese people that the two governments would seek to reduce the burden on them. The issues in focus relate to the U.S. military presence in Okinawa and elsewhere in Japan.


It was announced in mid-January that the U.S. and Japan would update their alliance through a new vision statement during Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan's visit to Washington later this year. Two paradigms in focus for such a proposed strategic exercise would be the realignment of U.S. forces in Japan and the challenges associated with China's growing military strength.

The realignment is said to be a process of relocating U.S. forces and bases in a way acceptable to Japan. This would include the withdrawal of some U.S. personnel from Japan altogether. However, the onus for securing the consent of the Japanese people, especially those in the Okinawa prefecture, will rest with the Japanese government.

Japanese Defence Minister Toshimi Kitazawa reaffirmed his country's commitment to implementing the controversial realignment road map, which the U.S. has already agreed to. He exuded confidence about winning the understanding of the Japanese people in favour of the road map.

Official Tokyo tends to believe that the Japanese people are opposed to the U.S. presence in Japan not on ideological or political grounds but on the basis of the daily inconveniences they suffer on account of U.S. military presence in densely populated areas. It is in this political milieu that Kitazawa has reaffirmed Tokyo's support for the U.S.-Japan project that intends to deploy a state-of-the-art ballistic missile defence system. Japan will fund this project partially and cooperate with the U.S. in the scientific and technological processes of developing and deploying the system.

Alluding to these aspects, Gates said host nation support would facilitate the deployment of America's most advanced capabilities in the defence of Japan. These capabilities include a new advanced interceptor of an adversary's ballistic missiles.

With this issued settled, the U.S. is seeking Japan's consent to sell the system to other countries. Japan's U.S.-imposed pacifist Constitution could preclude any such consent, at least in the short term. However, the U.S. believes that sale of the prospective ballistic missile defence system is essential to meet the challenges of China's military growth along a post-modern trajectory.

Unsurprisingly, such China-centric thoughts and plans induced Gates to seek with China an exclusively strategic dialogue on such military issues as those relating to outer space, cyberspace, nuclear forces and conventional capabilities. The U.S. and China currently engage each other under the framework of strategic and economic dialogue.

Conscious, too, that he had candidly conveyed to Chinese leaders much of the U.S.' concerns about China's rise as a military power, Gates later said: I disagree with those who portray China as an inevitable strategic adversary of the United States. We welcome a China that plays a constructive role on the world stage. Such an assertion need not be discounted, partly because the U.S. is increasingly aware that it is no longer light years away from other major powers on military matters. If anything, the gap between the U.S. and China is fast narrowing.

China, too, has taken a statesman-like line in the wake of Gates' latest visit to Beijing. On January 12, Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai said in a media briefing that China and the U.S. have communicated and coordinated with each other closely in handling the [recent] international financial crisis and the major regional hot-spot issues [as also] climate change and other global issues. The bilateral relations, in his view, are gaining a greater strategic significance and a rising global relevance. Despite frictions and differences, cooperation based on common interest always remains the mainstream of bilateral ties, said Cui Tiankai.

In further comments on January 14, he said:

The commitment to the one-China policy [as repeatedly expressed by the U.S.], the principles in the three China-U.S. joint communiqus and the joint statements, and respect for each other's core interests and major concerns constitute the foundation of our relationship, if it is to make steady and solid progress in the long run.

Unfounded suspicion is not only unnecessary but also very harmful. The deepening of shared interests between China and the United States and the development of China will not threaten or undermine U.S. interests. Likewise, a prosperous United States that seeks cooperation will benefit China's development. I agree with what Treasury Secretary [Timothy] Geithner said the other day that China and the United States have a great deal invested in each other's success.

Noting that China has never agreed to the notion of G-2 or a global governing group consisting of only Washington and Beijing, Cui Tiankai said China-U.S. cooperation is indeed indispensible to the solution of many global issues. However, China-U.S. relations have never been plain sailing. On the challenges ahead, he said: If the Taiwan issue is handled well, China-U.S. relations will develop in a smooth way. Otherwise, the relationship will suffer setbacks. This has been borne out time and again by the history of the last 30-plus years. There are also structural issues between China and the United States that are a result of our different social systems, historical and cultural backgrounds and development levels. We also have disagreements over specific issues due to diverging interests in certain areas or lack of effective communication and coordination. All these issues and disagreements need to be appropriately managed.

Such an exhaustive comment in a generalised political refrain was particularly relevant to the summit between Hu Jintao and U.S. President Barack Obama in the third week of January. It is now 40 years since the famous ping-pong diplomacy between the U.S. and China. The global political order has changed a lot since that time, with many analysts predicting new-style multipolarity. However, the delicate U.S.-China-Japan triangle is of particular importance to East Asia, even as a move for a leaner and meaner Pentagon is gaining some momentum.

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