U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates leaves China today with assurances from his counterparts on improved military ties marred by the same uncertainties that have dogged the relationship for years.
Gates won a pledge from Chinese military and civilian leaders to consider higher-level dialogue on strategic security issues and he praised them for “constructive” action to rein in North Korea. At the same time, officials wouldn’t commit to specific timelines and seemed at odds internally over U.S. ties.
Gates, on the last day of his three-day trip, said during a tour of the Great Wall that his visit that would take bilateral defense ties to “the next level.” He spoke after stopping at the Chinese military’s headquarters for its nuclear forces. He later heads to Tokyo, where officials are eyeing America’s regional staying power in the face of China’s rise.
“I think this is part of a step-by-step process of building this relationship,” Gates told reporters. He said he had “very candid” talks with the 2nd Artillery Corps that included discussion of China’s nuclear strategy.
U.S. officials have urged allies in the region to bolster their own forces to help ensure regional security, and Gates cited the Japanese government’s plan to purchase its next generation of fighter aircraft. Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-35 is one of the leading candidates.
‘A Few Suggestions’
The purchase “would give the Japanese the opportunity, if they bought the right airplane, to have a fifth-generation capability,” he told reporters yesterday in Beijing. “I might have a few suggestions for them.”
Chinese President Hu Jintao seemed caught off guard by his military’s test flight of a new stealth jet fighter, the J-20, a U.S. official said on condition of anonymity. Gates yesterday queried the president about the timing of the test, coming during his visit and on the eve of Hu’s trip to the U.S. that will include a Jan. 19 state dinner at the White House.
And while Gates said China had helped prevent further escalation of a confrontation between North and South Korea, he declared the North’s missile and nuclear pursuits put it on a path to become a “direct threat” to the U.S. The totalitarian country probably will develop an intercontinental ballistic missile within the next five years, he said.
Gates is seeking stepped-up military cooperation from China, which he said has been more helpful in recent months in pressuring North Korea to refrain from further conflict with the South after two attacks last year.
Yesterday’s comments carry particular weight because they come from the country’s defense chief, said Kim Yong Hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
“The U.S. is highlighting the increasingly real threats posed by North Korea, which had previously been seen as just potential concerns,” Kim said. “Gates is also sending a message to China that it needs to play a bigger role in containing North Korea.”
It’s unclear how unified the Chinese leadership may be on relations with the U.S. The surprise timing of the fighter test runs counter to the Obama administration’s expressed desire for China to be more forthcoming about its military plans and intentions.
The test may have served as a signal to the Americans or as a message from the Chinese military to its government. None of the civilians, including Hu, seemed to be aware of the flight until Gates brought it up, a U.S. defense official said on condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publicly.
Hu “said the test had absolutely nothing to do with my visit and had been a preplanned test,” Gates said. He reiterated those comments today.
The Xinhua News Agency, citing Guan Youfei, deputy director of the Defense Ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office, said China’s J-20 test was “routine” and not deliberately timed to coincide with Gates’s visit.
Gates proposed during his talks that the U.S. and China begin a joint civilian-military strategic-security dialogue this year that would include discussions of each side’s nuclear-weapons strategy.
“It was clear from President Hu that they’re taking the proposal seriously,” Gates said yesterday, adding that improving military relations will take time.
“This is an arena where we have to play the long game,” he said.
Taiwan Arm Sales
One of the biggest obstacles has been U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, which usually result in China cutting off military contacts. Gates held out the prospect that the U.S. may change the practice as Taiwan’s security improves and as relations between the island and the mainland thaw.
Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei, asked whether future Taiwan arms sales by the U.S. might again derail military ties, appeared to put the onus back on the Americans.
“To develop military-to-military relations entails a stable and reliable political basis which is mutual respect of sovereignty, security and development interests,” Hong said.
On the Korean Peninsula, the U.S. and China can work together to prevent an escalation of tensions into conflict, Gates said yesterday in an interview with Bloomberg Television.
“The Chinese have exercised a constructive influence to damp tensions and to try and bring about greater restraint in Pyongyang,” he said.
The defense secretary also sought Chinese support for pressure on Iran to curb its nuclear program. Technical glitches and sanctions that have delayed Iran’s nuclear program give the U.S. and its partners more time to exert pressure without resorting to military action, Gates said in the interview.
“As we say, all options are on the table and we prepare for all options,” he said. “If we have bought some additional time, it does give greater opportunity to the political-economic strategy.”