As U.S.-China Tensions Rise, Military Ties Suffer China's recent disputes with the United States have prompted Beijing to cool efforts at military cooperation between the two countries. But in the long term, Chinese leaders apparently recognize the value of regular military-to-military ties.
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As U.S.-China Tensions Rise, Military Ties Suffer

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As U.S.-China Tensions Rise, Military Ties Suffer

As U.S.-China Tensions Rise, Military Ties Suffer

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Cyber attacks are just one of many issues straining U.S.-China relations. President Obama's meeting yesterday with the Dalai Lama prompted a quick objection from Beijing. Add to that: disputes over climate change, Iran, the Chinese currency, and arms sales to Taiwan.

To get a sense of just how bad things are, you need look no further than relations between the two countries' militaries.

NPR's Tom Gjelten explains.

TOM GJELTEN: The Chinese have issues now with pretty much every corner of the U.S. government. But in recent weeks they've singled out just one agency for punishment: the Pentagon.

After the U.S. government announced new arms sales to Taiwan last month, Beijing said it would suspend contacts between the Chinese and U.S. militaries.

David Finkelstein, a China expert at the Center for Naval Analyses, was not surprised.

Dr. DAVID FINKELSTEIN (Director, China Studies, Center for Naval Analyses): When relations have been good between the U.S. and China, the military relationship has been the last to come along. When relations have been bad, it's been the first to be thrown overboard and over the side.

GJELTEN: Here's part of the reason. Chinese business leaders, scientists and diplomats regularly engage with their U.S. counterparts. By contrast, the People's Liberation Army, in the words of a senior U.S. official, is a rather insular organization.

An example of PLA thinking: After the announcement of the Taiwan arms sale, two senior Chinese generals suggested their government retaliate by selling some U.S. government bonds.

China holds about $800 billion worth of U.S. Treasury securities. Dumping them would hurt the U.S., but China would pay a huge financial price as well -something that may not have occurred to those Chinese generals.

Finkelstein, formerly the top China hand at the Defense Intelligence Agency, says it's not that Chinese military leaders don't follow the outside world, more like they don't get it.

Dr. FINKELSTEIN: They've got plenty of information. The question is: Do they understand what they're reading? Do they understand what they're seeing? That's a whole different question.

GJELTEN: It's because of this insularity that U.S. officials think it's important for Chinese military officers to have regular exchanges with their U.S. counterparts.

Phillip Saunders, who teaches at the U.S. military's National Defense University, has observed Chinese officers in courses there.

Dr. PHILLIP SAUNDERS (Senior Research Fellow, National Defense University): It's often very different than they imagined. And the discussions that you see in these types of meetings are more substantive and it makes it harder for them to have a straw man caricature of the United States as a country that is opposed to them and a military that's out to get them.

GJELTEN: Chinese leaders apparently recognize the value of regular military-to-military ties as well. Even while suspending most contacts, they stopped short of a total cutoff.

Just this week, the USS Nimitz, an aircraft carrier with a four-ship escort, was permitted to make an official port call in Hong Kong, which is now a Chinese territory.

Commander Jeff Davis is spokesman for the U.S. Navy's 7th Fleet.

Commander JEFF DAVIS (Spokesman, 7th Fleet, U.S. Navy): This visit was requested through normal channels via the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and we're delighted that we did receive permission. We're certainly mindful of some bigger things going on right now in the U.S.-China relationship. For us, it's a routine visit.

GJELTEN: Still, more tensions are inevitable. China is a rising power and the list of its conflicts with the United States is growing steadily. Near the top is the island of Taiwan, a U.S. ally that the Chinese government claims is part of its territory. The prospect of an armed showdown over Taiwan has been anticipated for many years. Military-to-military contact can lessen the danger but not eliminate it.

Dr. FINKELSTEIN: Look, the purpose of a military, to begin with, makes this a difficult story.

GJELTEN: David Finkelstein of the Center for Naval Analyses.

Dr. FINKELSTEIN: I mean, this is not the State Department. It's the job of military people everywhere, whether it's in Beijing or Washington, to think about the worst possible contingencies and be prepared to deal with them, and to the degree that that type of thinking can overcome an institution, yes, there are people on both sides of the Pacific who look at each other as adversaries.

GJELTEN: U.S. officials who follow China believe Beijing recognizes that the fates of the United States and China are intertwined, and that it's not in either side's interest to ratchet up the tensions.

But U.S. and Chinese interests do diverge in some areas and managing this relationship on both the military and nonmilitary fronts will be a challenge for years to come.

Tom Gjelten, NPR News, Washington.

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