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US Got Little From Chinese Visit

Over the last half year, China's military has carefully unveiled its J-20 stealth airplane, threatened US ships and hosed them down, discussed plans for an aircraft carrier and boasted of their being equals with the US on the global stage. Now we hear from respected naval expert Norman Polmar that the PLAN has successfully tested a submarine launched ballistic missiles for the first time. In light of all this, we asked the Heritage Foundation's Dean Cheng, one of Washington's most respected Chinese military analysts, to give us some idea of what actually happened during the recent visit of President Hu Jintao and what it means for them and for us. His title says it all: Hu Came and All I Got Was a Joint Statement.

Now that the visits of US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to China and President Hu Jintao to the United States, the question that naturally comes to mind is what, if anything, has changed in US-China security relations.

Much ballyhooed was the announcement that the United States and the PRC had initialed an agreement for a jointly financed nuclear security center. While, certainly, anything that reduces the possibility of nuclear materials falling into the wrong hands is to be welcomed, one has to wonder whether China was ever the most likely source of nuclear materials, compared with North Korea or Pakistan.

Indeed, if there were genuine interest in limiting vulnerable nuclear materials, one might have expected the Chinese to be willing to forego their planned sale of two new nuclear reactors to Pakistan, but there is no evidence that the US-China summits addressed this issue, much less reached such a conclusion.

Beyond this agreement, it’s even harder to identify any developments that would make either of these meetings especially memorable. Secretary of Defense Gates had indicated that he wanted to emplace dialogue on four topic areas: nuclear weapons, cyber security, outer space, and missile defense. The Chinese rebuffed him on all four (although, to be fair to Beijing, there is nothing that prevents either side from raising these issues in the ongoing S&ED talks).

For the presidential summit, the achievements are even more limited. Apparently after much wrangling between the US and Chinese sides, consuming much of the working-level efforts, a paragraph was included on North Korea (paragraph 18 of the Joint Statement). That the statement actually acknowledges North Korean uranium reprocessing is seen as a landmark achievement—as though North Korea itself had not displayed its reprocessing efforts to visiting American scientists even prior to the summit.

The Obama administration has also indicated that it welcomes China’s improved willingness to take North Korea to task, but thus far, there is little evidence that China has accepted the international verdict that it was the North Koreans who sank the South Korean frigate Cheonan, or criticized Pyongyang for its shelling of a South Korean island, killing both military personnel and civilians. Ultimately, less attention on the state of US-Chinese security relations was generated by the summit than by two Chinese weapons tests that effectively book-ended the summits. The first was the test flight of a prototype J-20 stealth fighter. That test garnered significant attention, both because of the timing (being tested on the eve of Secretary of Defense Gates’ visit), and because it seemed to belie rosy predictions that China would not be fielding a fifth generation fighter for at least a decade.

And there are now reports that China has finally tested the JuLang-2 (JL-2) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). Long in development, the JL-2, with its 5000 mile range, would give China’s nuclear arm much greater reach. With up to five of the new Type 094 nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) entering service, the combination of new subs and new missiles would give China a substantially more secure second-strike capability than it has hitherto enjoyed. But it would also mark a significant expansion of China’s nuclear weapons force, which had previously fielded less than a score of long-range ICBMs capable of reaching the United States. All of which suggest that President Hu will be handing to his successor, Xi Jinping, in the 2012 succession, a much more robust People’s Liberation Army (PLA). It will be a PLA which will have the modern weapons, and arguably the associated doctrine and trained soldiers, sailors, and airmen, to fight Local Wars Under Modern, Informationalized Conditions.

One wonders how much time, amidst the haggling over the wording of the US-China Joint Statement, the American side took to think about that?

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