China-U.S. Defense Hotline Shows Gulf as Military Chief Visits

Chinese Military Honor Guard
Members of a Chinese Navy honor guard wait for U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to review troops during a welcoming ceremony at Bayi Building in Beijing on January 10, 2011. Photographer: Larry Downing/AFP/Getty Images

A U.S.-China defense hotline set up three years ago may illustrate the hurdles to improving military relations between the two global powers. It’s been used only four times.

Navy Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will try to advance military cooperation between the two countries when he hosts the chief of staff of the People’s Liberation Army, Chen Bingde, May 15-22. Chen will tour U.S. military installations, attend meetings at the Pentagon and hear a joint concert by the U.S. Army and People’s Liberation Army bands.

The hotline was rarely used even in a period marked by two naval confrontations in 2009, friction over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and U.S. overtures to the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. One of the four calls was from Defense Secretary Robert Gates to congratulate his newly promoted Chinese counterpart in April 2008.

“We have yet to test it in a crisis,” said Bonnie Glaser, a senior fellow in the China program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington and an adviser to the U.S. government on East Asia. “It remains to be seen which senior Chinese leader would be ready to use it.”

The visit from Chen is the first by a chief of general staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army since 2004 and the latest effort to propel military cooperation to the same level as political and economic dialogue between the two sides. Military ties usually are the first to take the hit when China seeks to express displeasure over moves such as the January 2010 announcement of another U.S. arms sale to Taiwan.

Chinese Delegation

Chen will be among eight senior military officers, part of a 24-member Chinese delegation, visiting the U.S., according to a senior defense official who briefed reporters today at the Defense Department.

Gates visited China in January, laying groundwork for a fuller relationship in advance of a state visit later that month from President Hu Jintao to the White House.

That was followed this week by an annual strategic and economic dialogue in Washington that for the first time included a specific session uniting military and civilian leaders on both sides for a discussion of security issues.

Improve Communications

The U.S. had worked for two years to set up the strategic security talks that came to fruition this week, Glaser said. The main aim was to get Chinese military and civilian leaders in the same room to communicate with each other as well as with their U.S. counterparts, to reduce miscommunication all around, she said.

Gates cited the internal Chinese disconnect between their military and civilian officials during his visit in January. He said Hu and the civilian leadership seemed to be unaware that its military was carrying out a test flight on Jan. 11 of a new jet fighter that may have stealth capabilities, a move seen as a possible affront to Gates.

U.S. officials think it is important to establish a more regular process" of using the direct telephone link to help maintain open communications. “We expect we will discuss ways to enhance our use of the DTL,” said Navy Commander Leslie Hull-Ryde, a Defense Department spokesman.

Three ‘Obstacles’

China this week reiterated the standard three “obstacles” it sees to better military relations. Chen will raise the issues of American arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. air and sea reconnaissance missions in China’s exclusive economic zone 200 nautical miles from its coast, and American laws limiting armed-forces exchanges with the Asian nation, the official Xinhua News Agency said May 12.

The Chinese military chief will be looking for a “new type” of military relations based on “mutual respect and reciprocal beneficial cooperation,” Xinhua said, citing Qian Lihua, director of the defense ministry’s Foreign Affairs Office.

The U.S. expects to discuss Taiwan arms sales, as well as nuclear, cyber, space and maritime issues, according to the senior U.S. defense official.

The two sides aren’t likely to make progress on the three core issues just yet, Glaser said.

Officials in Washington and Beijing are working on a document of guiding principles for the relationship that aims to better define what terms such as “mutual respect” mean in relation to conundrums such as U.S. weapons transfers to Taiwan.

China wanted to finish the agreement in time for next week’s visit, Glaser said. The goalpost now has been moved to next year.

Tour Plans

Mullen has been personally involved in planning the trip, the senior U.S. defense official said. He and Chen are scheduled to hold a news conference May 17 at the Pentagon, the official said. Chen will give an hour-long speech on U.S.-China military relations 2 p.m. May 18 at the National Defense University at Fort McNair in Washington, D.C.

The Chinese are slated to tour surface warfare ships and watch a flight demonstration at Naval Station Norfolk, Virginia; observe a live-fire Army exercise at Fort Stewart, Georgia; see fighter jets at Nellis Air Force Base, Nevada; and watch a large-scale ground exercise at the National Training Center and Fort Irwin, California, the official said.

The Chinese had requested to tour an aircraft carrier, and opted not to visit one made available in Bremerton, Washington, due to scheduling difficulties, the official said.

A joint concert by the U.S. Army and People’s Liberation Army bands scheduled for May 16 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., will mark the PLA band’s first ever performance in the U.S., the official said.

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