General Chen Goes To Washington

General Chen Bingde, the PLA’s chief of staff, is due in Washington on May 15th for a week-long visit to his U.S. military counterparts. Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is his host. It may prove to be the most significant bilateral exchange of the year.

For all the progress made by Beijing and Washington in managing their differences on economic and strategic issues through regular and frequent discussions, the military relationship has remained distant and suspicious. General Chen’s is the first visit to Washington by a chief of staff since 2004. Since then the PLA has made vast strides in its modernization program, particularly of its air and naval forces, to the consternation of both Washington and its regional neighbors. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are another sharp point of conflict. Taiwan’s president Ma Yong-jeou has just called on the U.S. to sell it F-16 fighters, which are not part of the $6.4 billion weapons deal the U.S. agreed with Taiwan in January last year, a deal that sparked another rupture in Sino-American military relations when it was announced.

A determined effort is being made by both sides to bring the military dialogue into the mainstream of the bilateral relationship. Military officials were included for the first time in the Strategic and Economic Dialogue meeting held in Washington at the start of this week. Our man in Washington says that U.S. officials saw that as an opportunity to expose PLA leaders to aspects of Beijing’s civilian international agenda they haven’t much concerned themselves with as much as to get to know American counterparts. American officials were alarmed earlier this year that President Hu Jintao was apparently unaware of PLA test flights of its prototype stealth fighter during a visit to China by U.S. defense secretary Robert Gates.

General Chen is bringing a high-level team with him. His 24-member party includes eight other senior PLA officers. Their agenda will include U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. military reconnaissance within 200 miles of China’s coast, which Beijing claims, but the rest of the world does not recognize, as China’s exclusive economic zone, and U.S. restrictions on joint exercises between the two countries’ armed forces and exports of American technology to China. Beijing wants an end to all of the above. Cyberwarfare, space (Chen commanded China’s manned space flight program at one point), nuclear issues  and anti-terrorism and anti-piracy operations are also likely to be discussed.

State media have talked formulaically of Chen looking for “new” military relations based on “mutual respect and reciprocal beneficial cooperation”. Even distilling guidelines for what that means would be a start, given Washington is not likely to agree to any of Chen’s three main demands to stop arms sales to Taiwan, maritime reconnaissance in the western Pacific or limits on high-tech exports, the sort of respect Beijing is looking for. There may be some clues from a speech General Chen is due to give at the U.S.’s National Defense University during his visit. We expect no very great initial progress, but at least the visit–and a raft of lower level ones happening this year–will get a very necessary process underway.

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