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Will Renewed US-China Military Ties Relax Regional Tensions?

A month-long effort to restore military-to-military ties between Washington and Beijing seems to have paid off as Pentagon chief Robert Gates is set to meet with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, in Vietnam this week.

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Inter Press Service

While a growing dispute between the U.S. and China over the proper valuation of the China’s official currency the renminbi was a major focus of talks during the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) recent annual meeting in Washington, another aspect of the complex bilateral relationship between the two global giants may be on the mend.

A month-long effort to restore military-to-military ties between Washington and Beijing seems to have paid off with this week's announcement that Pentagon chief Robert Gates will meet with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, in Vietnam next week.

The Chinese government has also agreed to invite Gates to visit Beijing early next year, shortly after a state visit to Washington by President Hu Jintao in January, according to U.S. officials.

Gates was supposed to go twice earlier this year but was "disinvited" at the last minute, presumably to show Beijing's continuing unhappiness with Washington's 6.4- billion-dollar arms sale to Taiwan that was announced last January. Confirmation of that deal provoked Beijing to cut off most bilateral military contacts.

The resumption of ties, which also includes high-level meetings later this month at the headquarters of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Hawaii, will offer Washington something it has long sought – greater insight into the strategic thinking of China's military leadership, especially at a moment of growing questions here about the influence the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is exerting on Beijing's foreign policy.

Indeed, Gates himself suggested that the military was behind the cancellation of his first visit. Speaking in Singapore in May, he complained that "the PLA is significantly less interested in this (military) relationship (with the U.S.) than the political leadership of China."

The debate over China's strategic designs has been fostered by the sustained rate at which Beijing has increased its defence budget – at an estimated 150 billion dollars, still only about 25 percent of the Pentagon's annual spending – over the past two decades.

Specifically, the steady build-up of its navy towards a "blue-water" fleet and of a sizeable air force, as well as the rapid growth in its inventory of long-range anti-ship missiles, has increased concern that Beijing poses an ever- growing threat to the U.S. Navy's freedom of manoeuvre within hundreds of kilometres of China's shores.

"China is shifting its military focus from a land-centric focus to an air- and maritime-focused capability," the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, noted at a forum in India last summer. "The Pacific region is a critical economic region& I've gone from being curious about where China's headed to being concerned about it."

Those worries have become more pronounced as a result of what many observers here and in the region have characterised as recent Chinese "bullying" of its neighbours in the East China, South China and Yellow seas.

That "bullying" most recently took the form of unprecedented diplomatic and economic pressure on Japan to release a Chinese sea captain who allegedly rammed his fishing trawler against two Japanese Coast Guard vessels near a disputed island chain administered by Tokyo.

While Tokyo released the captain after China, among other measures, abruptly cut off Japan's supply of rare-earth minerals critical to key Japanese industries, the incident – combined with Beijing's recent assertions that it considers the entire South China Sea a "core [national] interest", a status similar to Taiwan and Tibet – appeared to belie China's long-held commitment to a "peaceful rise" that would not threaten its neighbours

Indeed, China's new assertiveness may have backfired, according to experts here.

"The measure of a great power is not how it flexes its muscles, but how it refrains from doing so," wrote Minxin Pei, a Chinese-born U.S. scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, last week. "Even though (Beijing) succeeded in forcing Tokyo to back down and release the detained captain, China gravely damaged its ties with Japan and sullied its image as a responsible great power."

It may also have worked in Washington's favour, as China's worried neighbours, some of which, like Japan itself, had been pursuing increasingly friendly policies toward China, have moved quickly to bolster their ties with the U.S.

Thus, the raging national controversy in Japan over the future of a U.S. military base in Okinawa vanished virtually overnight in the wake of the trawler incident.

At the same time South Korea, which was infuriated by China's refusal to denounce North Korea for its alleged responsibility for the deadly sinking of one of its naval vessels last March, has also moved closer to Washington despite Beijing's vigorous protests over joint U.S.-South Korean manoeuvres in the Yellow Sea.

The reaction has been similar in Southeast Asia, where China's territorial claims over the South China Sea – and the potentially oil- and gas-rich seabed beneath it – conflict with those of half a dozen other nations.

The Chinese Navy (PLAN), which built a new submarine base on Hainan Island, has become increasingly aggressive in patrolling the sea over the past year, according to regional specialists.

In an ironic echo of the trawler incident, Hanoi is currently demanding the release of nine fishermen detained by China near the Sea's Paracel Islands, over which both countries have previously clashed.

Washington has been quick to take advantage by upgrading its military ties in the region, notably with Indonesia and Vietnam. In August, Hanoi held joint military-training exercises with the U.S. Navy for the first time.

Beijing was incensed at a regional security meeting last July when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lined up behind Hanoi and most of China's other Southeast Asian neighbours by declaring that Washington had a "national interest" in preserving freedom of navigation in the region and open access to its maritime commons and offering to "facilitate" regional talks to resolve territorial disputes.

Beijing has always insisted that such disputes could only be taken up on a bilateral basis and denounced her statement at the time as an "attack" on China.

"We firmly oppose any country having nothing to do with the South China Sea issue getting involved in the dispute," a Foreign Ministry spokesperson noted last month in advance of a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in New York that was attended by President Barack Obama himself.

While the administration's moves and harder line toward Beijing on territorial, as well as economic issues have been applauded by right-wing figures in Washington, however, both the administration and the Pentagon appear more interested in easing tensions than inflaming them.

Restoring military ties reportedly was high on the agenda when Obama sent his top economic adviser, Lawrence Summers, and Deputy National Security Adviser Tom Donilon, who replaced Gen. James Jones as national security adviser, to Beijing one month ago.

Having received a favourable response, the administration sent a senior State Department official to prepare the ground for last week's announcements, which were made in both Washington and Beijing.

Jim Lobe is the Washington bureau chief of the Inter Press Service and a contributor to IPS Right Web (http://www.rightweb.irc-online.org/). He blogs at http://www.lobelog.com/.

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