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PLA, The Barometer Of US-China Relations

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of China is the barometer of US-China relations. When anything negative happens, it has greater impact on the military-military relations between the two countries than on the economic relations. While the PLA rules out the danger of any global military conflict involving China and the US, it does not rule out the danger of regional conflicts. According to the PLA, the US views China as a major strategic opponent. While there could be tactical improvements in the military-military relations, any enduring and strategic improvement would depend upon the US permanently stopping arms sales to Taiwan, removing discriminatory legislations affecting sensitive US exports to China and stopping the alleged intrusion of US naval ships and planes into the areas that China looks upon as its exclusive economic zones. China is still only a regional power but with global influence. While its relations with the US are important, its relations with its neighbours are equally important. It must improve its relations with them if it wants to keep them away from embracing the US. These are some of the points figuring in year-end discussions in China on the significance of the forthcoming visit to China by Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, which will be followed by a State visit to Washington DC by President Hu Jintao. 2.The new year will see Gates visiting China from January 9 to 12 and President Hu visiting Washington on January 19. Will these two important visits reduce the tensions that had cropped up in the relations between the US and China during 2010 ? The tensions were initially due to the decision of the administration of President Barack Obama to sell a new package of arms to Taiwan and subsequently due to the open interest taken by the US in the South China Sea dispute between China and some ASEAN countries and the joint naval exercises by the US and South Korea after the sinking of a South Korean naval ship by North Korea in March last year. 3. Beijing retaliated against the US decision to sell arms to Taiwan by suspending the on-going military-military dialogue between the two countries. A series of military exchange programs planned by both sides were cancelled , including a visit to China by Gates, exchange of visits between Chen Bingde, Chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and Admiral Mike G. Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, and exchange of visits by warships of the two countries. 4. However, Beijing did not allow its anger over the sale of arms to Taiwan come in the way of the visit of President Hu Jintao to Washington in April last year to attend the nuclear security summit. It also did not carry out its initial threats to impose sanctions against US companies selling military equipment to Taiwan in disregard of the Chinese protests. 5. The reaction from the Chinese military leadership to these developments was, however, stronger than the reaction from the political leadership. Apart from stepping up military exercises in the Yellow Sea and the adjoining coastal areas as a counter to the joint US-South Korean naval exercises, the PLA remained strongly opposed to an early resumption of the military-military exchanges. It is believed that it was largely the opposition from the PLA leadership to a visit by Gates which stood in the way of a visit by him to China after attending a conference in Singapore (the Shangri-La Dialogue) in June last. 6. In October, there were indications that the PLA leadership was relenting in its opposition to resuming the military exchanges with the US. Liang Guanglie,State Councillor and the Chinese Defence Minister, met Gates in Hanoi for the first time last year in the margins of an ASEAN-sponsored Defence Ministers’ conference. During the meeting, Liang Guanglie reportedly invited Gates to visit China in early 2011 and Gates accepted it. In December, Ma Xiaotian, the Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the PLA, and Michele Flournoy, the US Under Secretary of Defense, jointly chaired the 11th China-US defense consultation in Washington, D.C. 7. It was announced subsequently that at the invitation of Liang Guanglie, Gates will be visiting China from January 9 to 12, 2011. The Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries and the Research Center on Sino-US Relations of the Tsinghua University jointly held a workshop to discuss the relationship between the armed forces of the US and China. The dates on which this workshop was held are not known, but the “PLA Daily” had carried a report in three instalments on this Workshop on December 29,30 and 31. 8.A perusal of the salient points of the speeches made in the Workshop as reported by the “PLA Daily” would indicate that even though the PLA leadership had lifted its opposition to the resumption of military exchanges with its US counterpart, it still has mental reservations on the scope for such exchanges. Some of these salient points are given below:

· Rear Admiral Yang Yi (former director of the Institute for Strategic Studies of the National Defense University of the PLA): The military contacts are the “wind vane” of the China-US relations. China and the US hold different points of departure in military exchanges. The US, through these exchanges, wants to learn about the goings-on in the PLA and the intention of the Chinese military, whereas China adheres to the stance that the military ties must serve the overall situation and should not dance to the baton of the US. China should never slack down its efforts to realize its strategic goals despite the alleged concerns of the US. However, it could hold strategic communication with the US. · Prof. Wang Baofu ( of the National Defense University of the PLA): Why the China-US military relations are so fragile? The reason is that the military affairs are sensitive. When something wrong occurs in the China-US relations, the military contacts are prone to be suspended. Comparatively speaking, the impact of negative developments on the military-military relations is more than that on the economic relations. China-US military relations are still developing as reflected in progress made in the contact and negotiation on the nuclear weapons and the outer space issues. · Prof. Ouyang Wei ( of the National Defense University of the PLA): The root cause for the lack of military co-operation between China and the US is the absence of strategic mutual trust. China-US relations are complex involving both competition and cooperation. Such relations concern both local and overall relationships which are asymmetrical. In many cases the local relations are confrontational while the overall ones are not necessarily so. China should behave as a regional power having global influence. It should be concerned not only with its own security , but also with the security of other countries. We need to consider the issues concerning multiple countries from the perspective of global strategy, instead of considering them from the bilateral perspective. I propose a concept of “East Asia Economic and Security Community” to make East Asian countries dependent in economy and trustful in security. From this standpoint, the China-Japan relations can also realize the situation of “seeking common ground while reserving differences”. Thus, the influence of the Japan-US alliance can be mitigated. “· Maj. Gen. Peng Guangqian (Deputy Secretary-General of the National Security Policy Committee of the China Association of Policy Science Study): The paradox confronting the current China-US military relations is that globalization deepens interest inter-dependence on the one hand and exacerbates the interest friction on the other. The interest inter-dependence may lower the risk of a world war to some extent, but it does little to prevent small-scale conflicts, let alone root out the cause for war. The balance of nuclear power deterrence may cut down the risk of an all-round nuclear war, but can’t prevent the outbreak of conventional war. The US has already put China in the position of a major potential strategic opponent challenging its interests in future. In addition, the eastward movement of the US military strategic deployment focus from Europe to the Asia-Pacific region and the adjustment with Guam as the new military strategic hub are basically completed. The US has been verifying its combat ability and theory through a series of test-oriented actual-combat exercises, including the US-South Korea (ROK) military exercises and the US-Japan military exercises. 9.In a commentary on Gates’ visit carried on December 29, the “PLA Daily” said: “Some experts pointed out that a visit might not be enough to completely eliminate the three major obstacles impeding the development of military relationship between the two sides. “US arms sale to Taiwan, relevant bills passed by the US Congress to restrict exchanges between the two militaries and frequent reconnaissance to the exclusive economic areas of China by US warships and warplanes have been the hurdles that hinder the effort to establish mutual trust and develop cooperation between the two militaries,” said retired Chinese Rear Admiral Yang Yi. Military relationship has always been seen as a “wind vane” or “barometer” that reflects state-to-state relationship. Experts think that Gates’ visit can not only push forward the military cooperation between the two sides but also promote and supplement the China-US relationship.” 10. In a year-end interview disseminated by the State-owned Xinhua news agency on December 29, the Chinese Defence Minister Liang Guanglie said:”Without the military of more than two million troops…China will be a weak country. A major aspect of its strong national power, I think, is a strong defense. Despite growing national power and global influence, the international situation remains complex, while more and more unstable factors are shadowing China’s security. A war which involves the whole country is impossible at the moment, but there is a possibility that a mishap or accident might ignite regional conflicts. To enhance our comprehensive national power, (we have to ensure) our core interests are not hampered. We have to put the nation’s sovereignty and security in the top position, that is the common understanding of the whole Party (Communist Party of China) and all the people.” 11. As China prepares to receive Gates, the PLA is making sure that its views and perceptions are taken note of in matters concerning US-China relations. The conventional wisdom has been that in military matters, the Party decides and the PLA implements. In matters concerning the relations with the US, the party decides but with the concurrence of the PLA. The PLA is not just a subordinate without a mind of its own. It has a mind of its own and is prepared to express it in public and not necessarily only within the confines of the party or the Central Military Commission. That is the message that has been coming out.

( The writer, Mr B.Raman, is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: )  

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