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As Pentagon Report Warns of Chinese Military Might, Gates Emphasizes Cooperation

Richard Weitz

In his presentation at the June 1-3 annual Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore, Defense Secretary Robert Gates appeared much more sanguine about the possibilities of establishing a constructive Sino-American military relationship than his own Defense Department. A few days earlier, DOD had released the latest version of its annual publication, Military Power of the People’s Republic of China 2007 (pdf file). The report’s content is replete with warnings about China’s growing military capabilities, something Gates downplayed at Singapore.

As directed by Congress, the report focused on the potential threat posed by China to Taiwan. Its authors warn that China continues to enhance its military capabilities in the region of the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese military has annually deployed 100 additional short-range ballistic missiles in the region for the past few years and now has almost 1,000 missile launchers within range of Taiwan. In addition, China keeps approximately 400,000 regular troops in Taiwan’s vicinity. The report warns that the Taiwanese government has created a serious danger by allowing its defense spending to decline (on an inflation-adjusted basis) during the past decade.

The Pentagon study also describes the increasing range of sophisticated “disruptive” military technologies that Beijing could use to attempt to deny the U.S. military access to regions near China, such as Taiwan. These anti-access weapons include China’s improving anti-satellite and cyberwar (“information blockade”) capabilities. These “Assassin’s Mace” programs aim to exploit possible adversary vulnerabilities, such as American dependence on information technologies, through asymmetric strategies.

One of the functions of the DOD report, which also underscores China’s improving ability to project military power to regions beyond Taiwan, is to deter Beijing from using its new capabilities against the United States and its allies. For this reason, its authors caution readers (including presumably those in Beijing) that any attempt to launch a military invasion of Taiwan could have extremely negative repercussions for China. In such an eventuality, the DOD writers assert that Chinese leaders would have to suppress a major popular insurgency among the Taiwanese, confront possible U.S. and Japanese military intervention, manage serious economic problems due to international sanctions and the loss of Taiwanese investment, suffer severe harm to their country’s reputation, including an embarrassing boycott of the 2008 Olympic Games, and deal with a prolonged downturn in China’s relationship with the United States—“a result that would not be in China’s interests.”

The Defense Department also urges Beijing to show greater transparency with regard to its military capabilities and intentions. After asserting that China’s defense expenditures exceed those stated by the country’s official budget, the report warns that, “This lack of transparency in China’s military affairs will naturally and understandably prompt international responses that hedge against the unknown.” U.S. representatives have long cautioned that Beijing’s excessive military secrecy may alarm its neighbors and impede China’s integration into regional security institutions.

In its latest white paper on defense, China’s National Defense in 2006, the Chinese government attributes its recent increases in defense spending primarily to the steady growth of the country’s economy, which has allowed for expensive improvements in troop pay and living conditions. It also stresses that China’s need to keep pace with other countries that are upgrading their own militaries. At the Shangri-la Dialogue, Lt. Gen. Zhang Qishering, deputy chief of the General Staff of China’s People’s Liberation Army, dismissed the Pentagon report as misleading. He argued that, “Given the multiple security threats, geo-political environment, the size of the territory, and the per capita expense, the Chinese defense expenditure is small by all judgments.”

In his own keynote address at the Shangri-la Dialogue, Gates downplayed the military threats depicted in the DOD report and stressed that China and the United States share common interests “on issues like terrorism, counterproliferation, and energy security.” Although he referred to the Pentagon report as a sign of concern about inadequate Chinese military transparency, Gates observed that “there is some difference between capacity and intent. And I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship.” Gates’ presentation differed notably from that given at a previous Shangri-la Dialogue by his more combative predecessor. Two years earlier, Donald Rumsfeld told the conference that China’s military buildup raised disturbing questions for its neighbors “since no nation threatens China.”

One reason for Gates’ relatively restrained manner may have been that Sino-American military ties have been on the upswing in recent months. The secretary recalled that in March of this year, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, concluded a very productive visit to China. Pace and his Chinese military interlocutor, Gen. Liang Guanglie, agreed to establish a crisis communications link between the two countries’ defense establishments. In the question-and-answer session after his formal presentation, Gates endorsed the goal of creating a Chinese-U.S. strategic dialogue similar to that which characterized the Soviet-American military relationship during the Cold War. Through such contacts, he argued, both sides could avoid misunderstandings.

At this year’s Shangri-la session, Gen. Qishering announced that he would travel to Washington in September to finalize the details regarding the planned hotline. He also insisted that the Chinese government is gradually increasing its transparency on the basis of “the principles of trust, responsibility, security and equality.” Nevertheless, Zhang warned that since “some people in Taiwan are still dreaming about secession,” the Chinese armed forces “must be prepared to cope with this kind of threat.”

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