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Will China listen to Gates?
On Jan. 9, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates will leave on a three day visit to China, where he will meet with his counterparts in the Chinese government. According to Gates's spokesperson, the trip is "aimed at improving our mutual understanding and reducing the risk of miscalculation." Achieving a sustained military-to-military relationship between the United States and China has long been a goal of Gates. For the secretary, the ultimate purpose of such a relationship is to avoid a wasteful and potentially dangerous arms race between the two powers. What remains to be seen is whether Gates's hosts have the same view and whether they currently have much incentive to listen to their guest.
As a trained historian and former Cold Warrior, Gates is well aware of the costs and dangers of military competitions among great powers. Now in the eleventh hour of what will presumably be his last tour of public service, Gates is hoping that a system of regular contact between U.S. and Chinese defense officials will increase transparency, reduce suspicion, and ease the pressure that would otherwise push for greater military preparation on both sides. Gates is now deeply immersed in defense budget planning and feels the pressure smaller budgets will place on U.S. forces. Should Gates be able to avert an arms race with China, he would achieve a success that would eclipse those he may yet achieve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
For Gates, the U.S.-China military relationship benefits both sides and should logically be a high priority for both countries. Unfortunately, Chinese behavior on this issue does not support that view. In recent years, China has viewed Gates's desire for the relationship as mostly a U.S. interest, which Beijing has alternately granted and then withdrawn as a bargaining chip. The most recent such power play occurred a year ago after the Obama administration approved a weapon sale package to Taiwan. After much pleading from Gates in 2010, Beijing agreed to restart the meetings. With the Chinese having broken off the relationship in the past, another flare-up seems likely to cause a new shutdown in the channel. It seems clear that Gates and his Chinese counterparts assign different values to the military-to-military relationship.
If the United States is to avoid an arms race with China, it may need a different approach than merely assuming that the Chinese also want to avoid that race. Chinese policymakers may have concluded that the coming decade is no time for China to restrain its military production. Important new Chinese systems such as an anti-ship ballistic missile, a fifth-generation stealth fighter, new submarine models, and an aircraft carrier are completing their research and development phases. By contrast, the U.S. government is under severe financial strain and will have to impose more cuts in weapons procurement. It did not help Gates's negotiating leverage when, just prior to his departure for Beijing, photographs of tests of China's new stealth fighter appeared in the media and Adm. Robert Willard, Gates's commander in the Pacific, announced that China's medium range anti-ship ballistic missile -- the so-called "aircraft carrier killer" -- had achieved "initial operational capability." Gates, by contrast, held a press conference at the Pentagon three days before his departure to Beijing where he announced more spending cuts.
Gates continues to hope that a sustained military-to-military relationship between the United States and China will allow both sides to discuss their intentions and thus avoid dangerous misunderstandings. But he and other U.S. policymakers have to reckon with the possibility that China intends to use the upcoming period of retrenchment at the Pentagon to close the gap with U.S. military power in the region. If that's the case, U.S. policymakers will need to rethink their assumptions.