With President Obama heading to China as part of his sweep through Asia, it's a good time to assess the recent and groundbreaking visit of Gen. Xu Caihou, the Chinese equivalent of the defense secretary to America. The Chinese put on a full-court propaganda press, filled with images of PLA troops helping the afflicted and laced with declarations of China's peaceful intentions. We turned to Dean Cheng, one of the top analysts on the Chinese military who recently joined the right-wing Heritage Foundation, for his more independent assessment.
The headline is from the patron saint of military theory, Sun Tzu and was suggested by Cheng. Here's the full quote:
"So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself."
As the PLA broadens its reach and global presence, the potential of increased friction between American and Chinese forces has steadily increased. This is exacerbated by the opacity of Chinese military and security decision-making. At the same time, there are few mechanisms to promote better understanding.
The opportunity to redress this occurred with the recent visit of General Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) to the United States. According to the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the official newspaper of the PLA, the purpose of the visit was to strengthen Sino-US military cooperation. During his 12-day stay, he met with various US military and government leaders in Washington, and visited Pacific Command, Strategic Command, as well as several major U.S. military bases.
In remarks at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, DC, and elsewhere, Xu emphasized the need for ongoing Sino-US military-to-military contacts. Xu also noted a general need for greater dialogue between the two sides in order to minimize the potential for dangerous misunderstandings.
Both the United States and the PRC saw the visit as a chance to send messages to the other side’s senior political and military leadership. For the United States, the visit provided an opportunity to air several concerns. One is the ongoing Chinese military build-up, especially opposite Taiwan. Given the American commitment to maintaining stability in the Taiwan Straits, the growing array of Chinese ballistic missiles, some of which are designed to target American carriers, is an obvious source of concern.
Linked to this is the issue of transparency. While the PRC has been more forthcoming of late, issuing bi-annual defense white papers that have significantly expanded the range of official information available regarding the PLA, much remains opaque. In particular, Chinese security decision-making continues to be a mystery.
This is of particular salience given recent episodes involving US maritime surveillance ships and at least one involving a US destroyer. Chinese ships, both military and civilian, have operated in ways that endangered both sides, yet the Chinese have ignored the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), which was established in 1998 to provide a venue for discussing precisely such types of events. Questions about who authorized these actions, and whom to call in the event of a more serious incident akin to the 2001 EP-3 collision, remain unanswered.
From the Chinese perspective, these incidents are also topics for bilateral discussion, but for wholly different reasons. As Xu made clear in his public remarks, the PRC wants the United States to withdraw its maritime surveillance vessels and reconnaissance flights from China’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), in order to avoid any further repetition of these close calls. This echoes the line that the Chinese government began to enunciate earlier this year, and which Chinese military officers reiterated to Undersecretary of Defense Michele Flournoy during her visit in June. From the Chinese perspective, US naval vessels and military aircraft have no right to operate within China’s 200-mile EEZ.
At the same time that China is increasingly assertive about controlling its EEZ, it is also expanding its regional and global presence. Chinese naval forces are now beginning their fourth rotation in anti-piracy patrols off the Horn of Africa. Meanwhile, nearer to home, China is quietly emphasizing in bilateral talks with its southern neighbors its claims to the South China Sea. Coupled with reports of the refurbishment of the ex-Russian carrier Varyag, as well as the open display of new weapons and systems in the October 1 National Day parade through (and above) downtown Beijing, it is clear that the PLA is going to be more visible and more active.
To dispel any notion of a China threat, Xu’s visit also sought to convey the image of a "kinder, gentler" PLA. Thus, Xu concluded his CSIS presentation with a 30-minute video detailing the role of the PLA in the wake of the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. The film, complete with flawless English narration, emphasizes the role of the PLA in rescue and relief operations.
What may be less well understood is that Xu’s visit, including the video presentation, is an implicit restatement of the "new historic missions" that Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin charged the PLA with fulfilling. As set forth in a speech by Hu Jintao in December 2004, the PLA is charged with:
• Ensuring military support for continuing rule by the Chinese Communist Party • Defending Chinese sovereignty, territorial integrity, and national security • Protecting China’s expanding national interests, including at sea and in space • Promoting a peaceful global environment
These missions provide an indication of likely areas of PLA growth and emphasis, as the military shifts its focus beyond the Taiwan Straits. Xu’s comments are consistent with this more expansive set of tasks. As such, Xu’s visit is also a clear signal to Western observers that the PLA will exert a growing presence, not just regionally, but globally.
The question for both sides is: How was their message received?