WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ reputation for getting what he wants will be tested perhaps more than ever Sunday when he arrives in Beijing for three days of marathon meetings hoping to win the trust of China’s military.
It is likely one of the last major strategic moves for one of the nation’s last-serving Cold War-era geopolitical strategists, and it caps a year of heightened regional tensions in Asia — primarily over North Korean aggression — that seems to have softened Beijing’s stance toward the U.S. military, if only a little.
“What I’m hoping we can do,” Gates said in a PBS interview Thursday, “is look at ...where we have some opportunities, where we have common interests – for example, counterpiracy or humanitarian assistance and disaster relief – where our militaries actually can work together and get to know each other.”
Gates said with regard to China’s military buildup he is “looking for ways to be constructive, to be more open, to better understand what each others’ intentions with some of these capabilities – this is the way that sovereign nations deal with each other.”
Gates’ trip also includes stops in Japan and South Korea, nations he has visited regularly. He last was in Beijing in 2007.
China’s invitation marks the restart of military-to-military relations, the sixth such restart since normalizing relations in 1980, according to David Finkelstein, vice president and director of China studies at CNA. China has periodically frozen relations in protest of U.S. actions such as opposition to the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 and last year’s $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan.
By Finkelstein’s count, communication between the world’s two largest defense spenders was virtually silent in roughly 10 of the past 30 years.
But Pentagon officials said China wanted Gates’ visit as prelude to President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington the following week. Gates will meet Hu at the Great Hall of the People on Tuesday.
In the last few weeks, China bent toward demands from the White House, Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen to help contain North Korea, the New York Times has reported, while U.S., Chinese, and South Korean diplomats have engaged in high-gear diplomacy, shuttling between Washington and Asia.
Pentagon officials feel China has shown it is willing to offer more transparency. In December, Chinese defense and U.S. policy officials meeting at the Pentagon shared information on their militaries.
China watchers now are hopeful that Gates emerges with a solid commitment for strategic talks, which would be a political victory. Or better, a schedule for military meetings and exchanges between junior officers in 2011.
Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said there will be no grand document signing in Beijing. Instead, Gates seeks a commitment to keep senior communication lines open through inevitable political-military disagreements, and to begin building a framework for strategic and nuclear talks with Chinese military leaders.
“There is an increasing hardening of attitudes and increasing levels of hostility in the Chinese military toward the U.S. defense establishment. And to a certain degree, in certain quarters, that feeling is reciprocated in kind on this side of the Pacific,” Finkelstein said, “which is exactly why we need to have this sustainable military relationship.”
Some remain skeptical that People’s Liberation Army elites genuinely want the restart, sensing it was imposed by political elites.
“What I would be looking for, first and foremost, is the body language,” said China military specialist James Mulvenon, vice president of Defense Group, Inc. “They’re going to be there and they’re going to salute and they’re going to smile, but the question is, is anything really substantive going to happen.”
On Monday, Gates will meet with several of his counterparts in China’s complex political-military structure, including Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie and Gen. Xu Caihou, one of two Central Military Commission vice chairmen.
On Wednesday, Gates will visit 2nd Artillery Corps commander Gen. Jing Zhiyuan’s headquarters which oversees China’s nuclear arsenal.
Ultimately, if Gates wants to change Chinese hearts, he likely also must convince hardliners like Deputy Chief of the General Staff Gen. Ma Xiaotian, who has publicly lambasted the U.S. and southeast Asian countries for opposing China’s territorial claims to islands dotting the South China Sea.
“I expect Gates to get an earful about that,” Mulvenon said.
In Tokyo on Thursday, Gates will meet with Prime Minster Naoto Kan, Defense Minister Toshimi Kitazawa and Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara. On Friday, he will deliver a speech at Keio University and stop in Seoul to meet Prime Minster Kim Hwang-sik and recently appointed Defense Minister Lee Hee-won before departing for home.
Though U.S. leaders constantly assert that China is not its adversary, last year’s events allowed the U.S. to strengthen its regional security ties and presence with many of China’s neighbors.
After North Korea’s March torpedoing of South Korea’s naval vessel Cheonan, the U.S. rallied China’s neighbors against Pyongyang. Facing international outrage China did not block strongly worded U.N. resolutions, but Beijing refused to acknowledge an international investigation faulting Pyongyang, angering Japan and South Korea. In June, Beijing canceled a planned Gates visit to Beijing, timed near a major economic forum in Shanghai attended by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and U.S. Pacific Command’s Adm. Robert Willard.
At a July meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Clinton orchestrated a series of speeches by China’s neighbors denouncing its South China Sea territorial assertions, prompting Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi to call it “an attack on China.”
And after North Korea’s November artillery attack, the U.S. has brought typically unfriendly South Korean and Japanese officials unusually close together.
“This is a complex problem for the U.S.,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow at Center for Security and International Studies. “The goal is to get the Chinese to step up. The risk, of course, is you signal the Chinese this really is strategic encirclement and then the Chinese embrace North Korea ever closer. So, this is a difficult line for the U.S. to walk.”