The recent visit to China by US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Mike Mullen, will further improve bilateral military-to-military ties that have warmed considerably since President Hu Jintao’s state visit to the United States in January.
During his four-day visit, which ended on Wednesday, Mullen gave a speech at the prestigious Renmin University of China and met with Vice-President Xi Jinping, who is also vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. He also visited military bases in the Ji’nan Military Command and Nanjing Military Command and talked with Su-27 pilots about the capabilities of the aircraft. Mullen was also given access to China’s Second Artillery Force of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), the first visit by a senior US military official to the military unit that is responsible for China’s missile and nuclear stockpiles.
Mullen’s unprecedented access was reciprocal treatment to Washington following the visit to the US in May by Chen Bingde, chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army, who was given inspection tours of some US military bases and facilities.
Mullen’s visit to the Second Artillery Force will to some extent satisfy the Pentagon’s curiosity over China’s strategic nuclear arsenal, long believed to be the most secret and elusive part of China’s military development. In previous years, US military delegations always complained that their Chinese hosts only arranged visits to such scenic spots as the Forbidden Palace and the Great Wall, which was in sharp contrast to the access given Chinese military delegations to US military bases and facilities, they said.
The visits by senior military officials to each other’s key military facilities reflect both sides’ sincerity in their efforts to boosting bilateral military ties.
“China and the US should sincerely look upon each other as cooperative partners rather than adversaries”, Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said during a meeting with former US defense secretary Robert Gates in Singapore.
Mullen’s visit came amid lingering tensions in the South China Sea and the US’ frequent military exercises with the Philippines, Japan and Australia. An upcoming military drill is also due to be held between the US and Vietnam. All these have caused and will cause China serious concern and were a key topic of discussion between Mullen and his Chinese hosts.
Despite the improved relations, Mullen’s visit failed to erase wide divergences between China and the US on the South China Sea issue. During his meeting with Mullen, Chen criticized the US’ joint military drills with Vietnam and the Philippines as being inappropriate and said the dispute can be resolved without US intervention. Chen also denounced US’ surveillance activities in China’s offshore waters as unnecessary. In response, Mullen stressed that the US is and will be an Asia-Pacific power and it will not keep away from the region, as its presence is important to its Asian allies.
In fact, the US’ increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific region is a very important part of its “return to Asia” strategy, as indicated by Washington’s strengthened military presence in Northeast Asia in 2010 following the rise in tensions on the Korean Peninsular and in Southeast Asia this year. Maintaining military superiority in Asia-Pacific, in Washington’s eyes, is an important way of sustaining and prolonging its predominant status in the region.
If there is the lack of mutual trust between China and the US, then it remains particularly obvious between their militaries. The Pentagon always overestimates China’s military strength despite the fact that its weapons and military equipment are still two decades behind those of the US, as indicated by the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military strength. However, it is Mullen’s belief that China is developing military capabilities targeting the US and China’s military buildup is regarded as a big challenge to the US’ long-established predominance in Asia-Pacific. The Pentagon even believes that the established balance of power in East Asia has been affected by China’s rise as the result of the US’ over-emphasis on anti-terror operations and its involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
To eradicate misunderstandings and enhance mutual trust, the Chinese and the US militaries should increase exchanges. Encouragingly, a variety of consensuses were reached on bilateral military exchanges in the months ahead during Mullen’s visit to China.
The establishment of a long-term and reliable military relationship between China and the US is in the interests of both countries, as Mullen has claimed. It is hoped that the US will do more concrete work in a bid to clear away obstacles and push bilateral military ties to develop in a stable and sustainable fashion.
The author is a senior research scholar with the Center for US-China Relations at Tsinghua University.