China, U.S. Try To Mend Military Relations

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Beijing to meet with his Chinese counterpart and other Chinese leaders. Gates, who will be in Beijing for three days, is the first American defense secretary to visit Beijing since 2000.


One year ago, China suspended military exchanges and security talks with the United States. China was protesting American arms sales to Taiwan. American Defense Secretary Robert Gates is now in China. He's on a mission to revive those ties. NPR's Louisa Lim reports from Beijing on today's meeting between Gates and the Chinese defense chief.

(Soundbite of music)

LOUISA LIM: The U.S. Defense secretary, Robert Gates, started the day with an official welcome ceremony followed by a meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie. Gates spoke of the need to insulate military ties from politics.

Secretary ROBERT GATES (Department of Defense): We are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chances of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation, it is important that our military to military ties are solid, consistent, and not subject to political shifting political winds.

LIM: For his part, China's defense minister reiterated his opposition to U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Mr. LIANG GUANGLIE (China's Defense Minister): (Through Translator) We also hope United States will pay sufficient attention to the concerns of the Chinese side and in taking measures in - gradually remove or reduce the obstacles that stand in the way of our military relations.

LIM: Liang Guanglie also stressed that China's military development doesn't threaten the world. This follows U.S. concerns over Beijing's new weaponry. Just days ago, China's prototype stealth fighter was revealed to be making test runs. The U.S. had originally only believed that would be operational in 2020. Now, that's been moved forward to 2018. But one former PLA major general, Xu Guangyu, told NPR he believes the stealth fighter could be operational within five or six years. Xu is now part of China Arms Control and Disarmament Association. He says the West must understand China's military can't be frozen in time.

Mr. XU GUANGYU (Member of China Arms Controls and Disarmament Association): (Through Translator) There's a kind of national discrimination against China. We're not excessive in our things. Our planes are much worse than American ones - 10 to 20 years behind. Some people need to change their imperialist way of thinking. China can't always have pigtails and bound feet, and that level of backwardness be considered normal.

LIM: Western analysts used to believe that guiding Chinese military doctrine was hide and bide, after a saying by former Chinese leader Deng Xiao Ping to hide your capabilities and bide your time. Now, that seems to be changing. Beijing's official military spending is less than one-fifth of the U.S. military budget. But it's invested in - among other things - anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles, which can target U.S. aircraft carriers far out at sea.

Australian defense analyst Ross Babbage, of the Kokoda Foundation, says nobody else has this type of weapons.

Mr. ROSS BABBAGE (Australian Defense Analyst, Kokoda Foundation): The term that we tend to use in the west is anti-access area denial. It does summarize, pretty clearly, what the core of a lot of the Chinese strategy appears to be - that is, to prevent U.S. and allied forces operating with great freedom in the western Pacific. You know, there's a real risk here, that the Western strategy is being undermined very rapidly. And there's a need to really completely rethink where we're going and how we exist.

LIM: But former Chinese Major General Xu Guangyu disagrees. He says China's military is still primarily defensive, though he admits China may become more vocal as it becomes more powerful.

Mr. GUANGYU: (Through Translator) We call it active defense strategy. That means we want to defend the integrity of our territorial sovereignty. If we're invaded or attacked, we defend absolutely. We don't want to challenge America at all. If the U.S. wants to be the world policeman, the big boss, that's its business. We just want one thing: Don't bully us anymore.

LIM: During today's talks, the Chinese agreed to consider a proposal for a strategic security dialogue. It's a step forward, even if it falls short of any commitment to protect military ties from rupture. This visit comes a week before China's president, Hu Jintao, pays a state visit to the U.S., and it's expected to set the tone for that.

Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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