President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is scheduled to pay a state visit to the United States (US) from 18 to 21 January 2011, at the invitation of his US counterpart Barack Obama. The forthcoming event involving the most important foreign relation for the PRC is naturally getting close attention of a cross section of Chinese society- leaders, officials, think tanks and media observers. So is the case with the world at large which is eager to have a glimpse into what China, the super power in making and the US, the sole remaining global super power, are expecting out of the visit.
In a broad sense, the opinions expressed in China have welcomed the visit on the basis of the country’s perceived need to keep the momentum in bilateral ties going, through holding of high level China-US dialogue and promoting mutual cooperation. It however appears that the Chinese observers do not foresee any specific outcome from the event concerning any contentious issue – Taiwan, Tibet, trade surplus, exchange rate, North Korea and military modernisation in China. They have nevertheless given some clues to what could happen. ‘ Setting up of a framework for bilateral relations in the next decade for resolving gaps on specific issues’ during the visit has been considered as probable (Qu Xing, Director, China Institute of International Studies, Xinhua, 14 January 2011).
There are also indications that certain sections associated with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) are maintaining suspicions about US strategic intentions vis-à-vis China; no doubt they are not opposing the visit, but their perceptions on the US, as distinct from those of others, speak for themselves.
What are the American views? As US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton puts it (Washington, 14 January 2011), there is a need for ‘real action on real issues’ like ‘reduced tensions and deployments’ with respect to Taiwan question. Reports say that Obama may take up with Hu the issue of Chinese reduction of missiles deployed against Taiwan (Taipei Times, 16 January 2011). Secondly, the Western media feels that the visit may not see a forward movement on the thorny issue of US military presence in the Asia-Pacific region, going by the statement of US Defence Secretary Robert Gates (Seoul, 14 January 2011) that such a presence is essential for restraining Chinese assertiveness.
China’s views on the visit merit examination in detail. Among China’s leaders, what the PRC President Hu Jintao stated to the visiting US Defence Secretary Robert Gates (Beijing, 11 January 2011) has been most significant for future bilateral ties. Hu stressed that China and the US “share extensive common interests and enjoy broad prospects for cooperation”. Earlier, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi remarked that Hu’s visit would promote “further growth of China-US ties in the new era” (New York, 6 January 2011). Soon Chinese officials and media took up the same theme; the PRC Ambassador to the US, Zhang Yesui (Washington, 12 January 2011) observed that the “common interests of China and the US outweigh their divergence and dialogue and cooperation are the mainstream of bilateral relations” and the Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai (Lanting Forum, 14 January 2011) said that there is no alternative to China-US cooperation, which is also conducive to ‘rejuvenation’ of the Asia-Pacific region and that the two sides should ‘seek common ground while reserving differences’. A lengthy signed article in the authoritative People’s Daily (12 January 2011) asked the nation to ‘greet the historic opportunity for China-US ties with confidence’, adding that the differences between the two nations are ‘normal’ and that both should respect ‘mutual sovereignty ad territorial integrity’.
There have been unmistakable signs towards China’s calculated attempts to downplay the differences with the US in the run up to the visit; these may go to show China’s realisation of importance to preserve at this moment the already established ‘positive, cooperative and comprehensive bilateral relationship’, which came under strains in the recent period. As instances, Beijing clarified that the development of PRC’s military hardware like J-20 stealth fighter is not aimed at any other country (Defence Minister Liang Guanglie to US Defence Secretary Robert Gates, Beijing, 10 January 2011) and even accepted ‘reasonable’ US presence in Asia-Pacific region (Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Cui Tiankai, Beijing, 14 January 2011). Also, the PRC assured that it will not seek hegemony and compete with the US and Western powers by force of arms like J-20 (Rear Admiral Yang Yi,former Director, Institute for Strategic Studies, National Defence University) .In addition, the PRC indicated that it would not again freeze the China-US working level defence talks in protest to Washington’s arms sales to Taipei; notable is what Gates said in reciprocity – the US is willing to reduce arms sales to Taiwan in future if tensions ease between the Mainland and Taiwan.
The essence of what certain Chinese military analysts have stated as the visit was coming near, appears in contrast to the positive sentiments brought out in the preceding paragraphs. Writing under the caption “ US Seeks Hegemony: Contain China by Making Use of China”, in the ‘Hongqi Wengao’ (‘Red Flag Manuscript’, managed by ‘Qiu Shi’, the theoretical organ of the Chinese Communist Party, 28 December 2010), three scholars belonging to the PLA General Staff Department-controlled Nanjing Army Command Institute (Wang Zhijun, Jing Shi and Li Dezhong) accused the US for causing troubles after troubles to China in 2010 through its actions like arms sales to Taiwan, internationalisation of South China Sea issue and open support to Japan on DiaoYu (Senkakus) problem.
The three experts further charged the US for establishing military bases in the Asia-Pacific region under the pretext of preventing China’s threat and harming the trade partnership ties between China and surrounding nations. Washington in particular encouraged the ASEAN nations to suspect China. Such moves which violate China’s national rights, show that the US is gradually building an anti- China United Front, so as to enhance the degree and strength of its plan to encircle and contain China. Although containing China is a broad US strategy, Washington realises that if China’s development stagnates, the same will not be in its interests. Facing the situation under which the US comparative superiority in national strength is obviously falling, the world multipolarisation process is progressing and China’s development is becoming unstoppable in reality, the US feels the objective necessity to rejuvenate itself and make its economy strong; for this it needs a strong China, but with a China well below the US in terms of national strength. The analysts then criticised the US for trying to make use of China for realising its strategic plan to lead the world.
The Chinese military scholars added that in the Asia-Pacific region, Washington intends to establish ‘hegemony’ by making use of the strengths of regional countries, both traditional allies and new partners. This makes it to spread the canard of ‘China threat’ among such countries. In doing so, Washington is disregarding objective reality of 30- 50% gap between the military strengths of US and China. Such a situation is making the regional powers suspicious on China, which the US wants to exploit for its competition to secure sea rights. As Washington aims to make the nations in China’s neighbourhood to serve its strategy to contain China, a tense situation in the region has come into being. The analysts at the same time pointed out that such nations are not keen to serve the interests of US strategy as they have come to depend on China markets. In conclusion, they called upon China to firmly deal with the US, which follows a strategy to contain China.
What is the meaning of the anti-US views expressed by PLA scholars? The hawkish stand against the US and the West coming from China’s experts affiliated to the military is not new. Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, attached to the National Defence University, Col Dai Xu of China’s Air Force and Rear Admiral Yang Yi, have in the recent past adopted strong anti-US positions interalia accusing Washington of trying to encircle China. What is important is that the latest military comments critical of the US have appeared in the most authoritative party theoretical magazine, that too close to Hu Jintao’s impending visit to the US. Questions arise – is there any indirect objection to the visit within China? Is there any division between the party and government on one hand and the military on the other on how to approach the US? The answer is clearly No. In principle, the Chinese Communist Party always commands ‘the gun’ and the PLA has to obey the party line. Intriguing in this regard is the admission of the party-controlled Global Times (14 January 2011), first such instance to be noticed, that “ China has so called hard-liners and pragmatic group’. The picture in any case remains opaque and no final word can be said at this moment. The PLA’s apparent increasing involvement in the country’s foreign policy making, may signal that an internal debate on balancing the diplomatic and security interests of the country, is in progress within the country albeit with official blessings; this may be meant to benefit the PRC’s fifth generation leadership slated to take over in 2012 in its policy making. In any case, one thing is certain – the PLA factor is going to keep the hands of China watchers in the world full in the coming years.
(The writer, Mr D.S.Rajan, is Director, Chennai Centre for China Studies, Chennai, India.Email:email@example.com)