Retired U.S. and Chinese Flag Officers Try to Smooth Relations Over BBQ and Fishing Trips

Interesting article in Hong Kong's South China Morning Post about a group of retired U.S. officers, led by former JCS vice chair Adm. Bill Owens, who have set up the "Sanya Initiative": an effort to promote back-channel communications, and between retired U.S. and Chinese officers.

Derisively labeled "panda huggers" by some in the military industrial complex, Owens, along with Admiral Joseph Prueher, former US ambassador to Beijing and head of Pacific Command, and General Dennis Reimer, former US Army chief of staff, "have held banquets, fishing trips and met together with their wives," with former high-ranking PLA flag officers. They include: "General Xiong Guangkai, the former deputy chief of the PLA General Staff and military intelligence supremo. Other generals include General Yu Zhenwu and Vice Admiral Zhao Guojun, former commander of the PLA Air Force and commander of the East Sea Fleet."

The article quotes anonymous Pentagon sources who aren't altogether pleased with Owens' initiative, lending credence to his fears of "mutual suspicions haunting both capitals." Some worry that Owens has been a little too willing to sell Taiwan down the river to please China. He counters that too many politicians and defense folks alike are willing to paint China as a future enemy as powerful forces seek a replay of the Cold War Soviet-U.S. competition.

"I think time tends to run out on these things as the attitudes on both sides harden... as the Chinese military grows, the US will react to it in a competitive way," he explains. "We have only a limited amount of time remaining to find ways to... become more like friends than competitors and genuinely engage in addressing the issues that the world faces.

"When you look back 30 years from now, what we should have done back in 2010, I think there will be a number of things that we will have said we have done. At that time it may be too late. We may be locked in some kind of competition... not only a trade competition, not only a business competition but a competition of great nations."

In an editorial in the Financial Times last November urging an end to arms sales to Taiwan as part of a goodwill gesture to set U.S.-Chinese relations on a more benevolent path, Owens questioned the U.S. ability to maintain influence in the Western Pacific:

We must consider the facts. China will continue to grow four to five times faster than the US. In less than 30 years China's GDP will equal that of the US and we will live in a world of two great and equal powers. Importantly, if China funds its military at a global standard of 3-4 per cent of GDP, it will have the capacity for a military equal to or greater than that of the US (they get more from the yuan than we from the dollar, manpower costs are less, and production is cheaper because of its scale).

At that time, friends and allies such as Japan, Korea, India and Indonesia will be faced with a difficult choice (and yes, it will be a choice) between China, a rapidly growing and influential regional power, which is continuing to grow and trade in much larger quantities, or stick with the US (a 12-hour flight away). Is that the scenario we would set for the future? I believe not.

The solution is to approachthe US/China relationship not with hedging, competition or watchfulness, but with co-operation, openness and trust.

Photo: SCMP

-- Greg Grant

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