With their meeting in Hanoi, U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie are expected to revive military-to-military relations between the two major powers, on hold since the sale of U.S. arms to Taiwan at the beginning of this year.
Yet, recent reports indicate that there is little actual warmth, much less trust, between the two sides’ defense establishments. Indeed, it is important to recognize that, despite the announcement that Secretary Gates will be visiting China early next year, the return of military-to-military contacts is the product of instructions from both sides’ political leadership, rather than the initiative of the two sides’ military leadership. The impending Hu-Obama summit is highly visible, and neither wants bad military-to-military contacts to sour that meeting.
This means, however, that there are only limited prospects for a genuine deepening of military relations after the leadership summit. The Chinese military establishment appears particularly uninterested, and neither side seems to expect much from the contacts. The Chinese see the talk as a U.S. request, and is certain to have its own demands in return. As they have already indicated publicly, above all, this means ending U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. It is also likely to mean pressure on the U.S. to lift legal requirements that restrict the sort of information that can be shared with the Chinese in the course of these contacts.
The Administration should resist on both scores. Indeed, it should move forward with approving the arms Taiwan needs—particularly the F-16s it has requested—as soon as possible. Ignoring Taiwan’s needs in exchange for talking with the PRC is a terrible deal, as is sweetening the talks by holding out the prospect that we may transfer more information.
Moreover, as Secretary Gates is already something of a lame duck, it’s an interesting question just how much his visit will achieve—how do the Chinese look upon a visit from a Secretary who’s already announced he’s leaving soon?
The real issue here is whether the Secretary really believes that the lack of interest in deepening military-to-military contacts is driven by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), i.e., whether there is “daylight” between the military and the civilian leadership in the PRC. The problem is that there is very little basis for this conclusion.
There is certainly very little precedent of fundamental dissent between the top military leadership and their civilian bosses, at least since the 1990s, if not before. If “daylight” didn’t emerge when the PLA was ordered to divest itself of billions of dollars in PLA-run businesses in 1999 (striking at its monetary self-interest), or when it was ordered to make repeated manpower cuts, or even in light of the reduced increase in this year’s defense budget, is it really likely that there would be open dissent over the issue of increased military-to-military contacts with the United States?