On Friday, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie arrived in the US for a six-day visit. He started out by saying that his country and America are not competitors. That’s a good thing, because during his stay he is getting a look at, among other things of value, advanced Navy and Air Force hardware.
Liang has already been to Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, in San Diego, where he toured a destroyer. By the time he leaves, the burly defense minister will have also inspected Southern Command in Florida, Fort Benning in Georgia, Camp Lejeune in North Carolina, and West Point.
Bill Gertz of the Washington Free Beacon suggests the Obama administration, by showing sensitive sites to Liang’s delegation, may be violating Section 1201 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, which prohibits exchanges with China that “create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure” in 12 areas enumerated in the statute.
Clearly, the US has disclosed substantially more than China has during decades of reciprocal visits, and the continued one-sided nature of this process is troubling. Proponents of these visits nonetheless say the disclosures can intimidate the Chinese by convincing them they cannot prevail in any actual conflict. That’s a great theory, but the flag officers of the People’s Liberation Army have known that for six decades.
In any event, the real purpose of the lopsided disclosures is to build mutual trust. “What I’m hoping is that we can establish at least a process whereby we can communicate with one another on a peaceful basis,” Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said on Thursday, on the eve of Liang’s arrival.
Judged by this standard, decades of visits have been a dismal failure. The Chinese, for instance, are resistant to establishing any rules-of-the-road maritime agreements, such as the ones America had with the Soviet Union.
Coordination is especially difficult. Beijing broke off military ties in early 2010 over Washington’s announcement of arms sales to Taiwan. Relations were resumed in time for China’s flag officers to insult, if not humiliate, then Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his trip to Beijing in January 2011.
The essential problem is that the Chinese can sense desperation in Washington. There, policymakers want to avoid the conflict that accompanied the rise of Germany and Japan in the last century and believe that dialogue can do the trick. Yet as American administrations have tried harder to talk to China, the Chinese have pulled back. This has led to the unusual exposure that visits like Liang’s allow.
You would have thought that American generals and admirals—not to mention Washington policymakers—understood the basic truth that in any relationship, power almost always rests with the less-interested party.
“There are a lot of issues we have to discuss,” Secretary Panetta said on Thursday. Yes, he listed North Korea, freedom of navigation, humanitarian assistance, and nuclear proliferation—and could have added a few more. In fact, there seem to be additional issues every month, as China’s international behavior becomes markedly more aggressive.
But after decades of failed discussions, it’s obvious we can accomplish more with China if we stopped pursuing the Chinese so ardently. But then, apparently no one in Washington can grasp even the most basic principles of human relations.