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Foreign Policy

Panetta’s Coming Visit to China: What to Expect

Aug 20 , 2012

According to Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman Geng Yansheng, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will make his first visit to China as Pentagon chief in mid-September. Panetta’s visit comes at a time when China is increasingly at odds with Japan over sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands and in the midst of joint US-Japanese military exercises simulating the capture of a hostile island. The announcement once again draws Chinese attention to the role the US is playing behind the territorial disputes between China and its neighbors, US intentions in its rebalance strategy towards the Asia-Pacific, and even to the China-US mil-to-mil strategic distrust. So what can be expected from Panetta’s visit to China?

In my observation, Panetta’s visit will be helpful for China to better understand US strategic intentions. This year marks a great change in US military strategy. The US Department of Defense released an unclassified version of the defense strategic guidance entitled “Sustaining US Global Leadership: Priorities for 21st Century Defense” on 5th Jan., declaring a shift in US strategic focus from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. On 2nd Jun. Panetta outlined details of the US plan for its "rebalancing" act towards the Asia Pacific in a speech at the Shangri-La Dialogue, saying the US Navy will reposition 60 percent of its warships to the Asia-Pacific by 2020, as part of its new strategic focus on Asia. When the disputes between China and the Philippines heated up over sovereignty of Huangyan Islands in the South China Sea in April, the US-Philippine joint military drills were underway, obviously supporting the Philippine’s aggressive attitude and fueling its tensions with China. Now, when China is increasingly at odds with Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, the US is undertaking another island-recapturing joint exercise with Japan in Tinian, Guam, and Saipan.

Conflicting signals sent by the US government exacerbate general suspicions in China on US strategic intentions. Although high-ranking US officials have denied on different occasions that the above actions are aimed at China, the encirclement around China organized by the US looks to be tightened. Although the US government declares it takes no position on the disputes regarding the Diaoyu Islands, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the Diaoyu Islands came within the scope of the US-Japan security treaty. Although Washington says it does not intend to get involved in the disputes in the South China Sea, it has criticized China's establishment of a military garrison in newly created Sansha City. These conflicting signals make people more confused about the overall strategic intentions of the US. These intentions need to be explained by Panetta to the Chinese military leadership face to face and to the Chinese people as a whole.

Panetta’s visit will also be helpful to promote China-US mil-to-mil strategic trust, to reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation. There are significant differences between China and the US in many respects, including social systems, degrees of development, culture and tradition, and international perceptions, which often lead to different interests and views on a broad range of issues. Over the past 20-odd years, the bilateral mil-to-mil relationship, the most fragile relationship overall between the two powers, has experienced multiple ups and downs and has been suspended outright at least six times mostly due to US arms sales to Taiwan. It demonstrates that the mil-to-mil relationship lacks an inherent driving force, and behind it is the strategic distrust. This distrust leads the bilateral military relationship to an on-and-off cycle, with too frequent suspensions of ties, which in turn causes more anxiety and less trust, drawing the relationship into a vicious circle.

Against this backdrop, bilateral exchanges are extremely important to promote understanding and reduce miscalculation, particularly at the higher leadership level. It seems that the US and Chinese approaches to military exchanges are diametrically different. While the US has pursued a “bottom-up” approach, starting with lower-level contact to work toward mutual understanding and then strategic agreement, China has sought a “trickle-down” relationship in which agreement on strategic issues results in understanding and then allows for specific activities later. The US may believe that military trust is an outcome of frequent exchanges at different levels and establishment of people to people understanding, thus putting more emphasis on various kinds of exchanges. However, China thinks that political trust is the prerequisite of military trust, not vice versa. If there is no basic trust at the political level, how can military trust be established? Recognizing the importance of higher level exchanges, high-ranking military visits between the two countries have maintained a positive momentum over the past two years. This year so far the Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie and Deputy Chief of General Staff Gen. Cai Yingting visited Washington respectively in May and in August, while the US Pacific Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear visited Beijing in July.

Panetta’s visit will be conducive to promoting China-US military cooperation. As China plays an increasingly important role in the international arena and non-traditional security threats pose a real and urgent need for China and US to cooperate, more common ground can be found when dealing with security challenges of a global nature between the two countries, such as on the issues of international terrorism and the proliferation of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). No country is able to deal with each of these issues alone, and no country can remain distant and immune to them. In coping with such challenges, China and the United States share common interests.

During General Liang Guanglie’s visit to the US this May, both countries agreed to enhance exchanges and cooperation in humanitarian assistance and disaster relief and to conduct joint humanitarian relief and anti-piracy exercises later this year. Panetta’s coming visit to China is expected to further promote the momentum of bilateral military cooperation, which will be extremely important for the long-term bilateral mil-to-mil relationship, especially considering the possible military leadership changes this year both within the US and China. The expanding and deepening of military cooperation will facilitate joint strategic mutual trust, forging conditions necessary for solving bilateral differences and sensitive issues. Although one probably should not expect too much from Panetta’s coming visit, considering the complexity and fragility of the China-US military relationship, it is hoped that momentum for better cooperation based on mutual trust will continue. 

Zhao Xiaozhuo is a senior colonel and Deputy Director of the Center on China-America Defense Relations at the Academy of Military Science for the People’s Liberation Army.

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