Washington: Of the many planned stops on a U.S. tour this week by a top-level Chinese military delegation, one — the iconic Grand Canyon — is an especially apt metaphor for the wide divide between Washington and Beijing over explosive issues like U.S. support for Taiwan.
Pentagon officials hope the visit, which begins Monday in Washington, will mark a fresh beginning for a prickly, start-and-stop relationship between the two military behemoths of the Asia-Pacific region. The Chinese delegation is led by Gen. Chen Bingde, the counterpart to the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. It is the first visit of its kind in seven years.
The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important in the world, given traditional U.S. security and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and the rapid modernization of a Chinese military viewed with increasing suspicion by U.S. allies in the region.
China has been investing heavily in items that enable it to project power well beyond its shores; it is expected, for example, to complete construction of its first aircraft carrier this year. And it is focused on capabilities — such as cyber warfare and missiles that could be used to sink or paralyze American carriers — that could deny U.S. access to Asian theaters of war.
This week's visit was delayed due to Chinese anger over the Obama administration's approval in January 2010 of a $6.4 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory and that the U.S. is committed to arming.
Military-to-military relations were frozen after the arms sale was announced. A thaw began with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Beijing last January, followed by a productive visit to Washington shortly afterward by President Hu Jintao.
Taiwan, however, remains a major problem. Just last week, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou called on Washington to grant Taiwan's request to purchase U.S. F-16 fighter jets and diesel-powered submarines — arms that China insists Taiwan does not need.
Gates issued a reminder of his concerns about China when he was asked by an enlisted Marine last week at Camp Lejeune about looming security threats. After citing terrorism, Iran and North Korea he mentioned "China's military program."
For years, Washington has searched for ways to build a relationship with Beijing that is less vulnerable to sudden disruptions and the danger of serious miscalculations. But there has been a persistent pattern of breakdowns since the Chinese crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Relations were again severed when China refused to believe that the 1999 bombing of its embassy in Belgrade was accidental, and the U.S. cut off relations in April 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane and the American crew was held on China's Hainan Island for nearly two weeks.
Two senior U.S. defense officials who previewed this week's visit before Chen's group arrived Sunday stressed that no breakthroughs on major issues are expected. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal planning, set a low bar for the visit's success: Simply getting senior officers together and giving the Chinese a look around the U.S. military.
First Published: Monday, May 16, 2011, 14:48