PLA Remarks Renew U.S. Concerns

Experts see little chance for a U.S.-China strategic breakthrough following a visit from a top Chinese military official.
By Michael Lelyveld
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BOSTON—Recent military contacts between the United States and China are unlikely to produce major policy changes, analysts say.

A Washington visit by a top People's Liberation Army (PLA) official had raised expectations for cooperation on security issues in the run-up to President Barack Obama's trip to China on Nov. 15.

The Pentagon agreed to a series of exchanges and cooperative contacts during the visit by Gen. Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the PLA Central Military Commission, on Oct. 24-31.

But experts doubt that Xu's visit was a prelude to major shifts in security policies in preparation for President Obama's trip.

"This is a trip that I think has the potential to increase understanding a bit and to move the ball forward in terms of opening up new areas of cooperation between the two countries," said Bonnie Glaser, senior fellow in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

But Glaser said that sweeping changes in security policies seem unlikely on either side.

"I don't think we will see a profound breakthrough in the relationship, particularly in the area of the lack of strategic trust," Glaser told Radio Free Asia. "I think that is deeply rooted and is going to take perhaps a long time for the two sides to work out."

Committed to peace?

During his visit, Xu gave a presentation on PLA activities to CSIS scholars and reporters prior to meetings with President Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates.

Xu emphasized the PLA's role in providing security with activities like disaster relief during the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, as well as anti-terrorist and defense efforts.

"We are now predominantly committed to peaceful development and we will not or could not challenge or threaten any other country," said Xu, according to a translated transcript.

But analysts said Xu largely repeated previous policies and did little to address U.S. calls for greater transparency in China's military spending and strategies.

Glaser was asked whether there was anything new in the general's presentation.

"I would say no," she said. "Gen. Xu did not talk very much about China's evolving capabilities that could be used potentially in a contingency in the Taiwan Strait or in other ways that might be viewed with concern by China's neighbors or by the United States."

"In that regard, no, I don't think that there was any breakthrough in transparency," Glaser said.

Increased spending

Critics of China's policies cite its increases in military spending, its parading of new weapons and its attempts to block U.S. surveillance in international waters of the South China Sea during incidents earlier this year.

Xu argued that PLA spending on new arms "is merely for meeting the minimum requirement of national security." But statements about efforts to "unify" China renewed concerns among analysts.

"I also need to point out that China is yet to be completely reunited while secessionist schemes of Taiwan independence, East Turkestan independence and Tibet independence forces are still underway," the general told his audience.

"The threats facing China caused by secessionist, extremist and terrorist forces are also on the clear rise."

Thomas Bellows, a political science professor at University of Texas at San Antonio and editor of the American Journal of Chinese Studies, said the issue of Taiwan's status should not be grouped with autonomy movements in Xinjiang and Tibet.

"That's sort of lumping together things that don't actually fit," Bellows said. In any case, the threats cited by Xu do not justify a military buildup with weapons like missiles, he said.

"This is the hard-line approach," said Bellows. "Most of the military technologies, submarines and missile capabilities that they're developing have very little to do with terrorism in their western boundaries."

No change expected

Adam Segal, senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, agreed that Xu's formulation will not encourage change in U.S.-China relations.

"The language coming from Xu is not going to gain any traction in the United States," said Segal. "We're not going to think of Xinjiang and Tibet in the same kind of frame as the missiles pointed at Taiwan."

Bellows said that other activities like cyber attacks on U.S. computer systems that have been traced to China will keep Washington on its guard.

"I think there are just too many things out there that suggest they could do serious harm to us," he said.

Bellows sees little reason to expect major changes in China's military policies or strategies.

"I can't understand why there would be a breakthrough, particularly when you're hearing some of the hard line from Gen. Xu," he said.





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