What a relief! The top commander of the People's Liberation Army, Gen. Chen Bingde, said Wednesday that China has no desire to challenge the United States in the Western Pacific, and moreover, that it doesn't have the military capability to do so even if it wanted to. The American military -- parts of which Chen got to see during his visit this week with Adm. Mike Mullen -- is years ahead of the PLA, Chen said. What about China's decision to test-fly its new J-20 fighter during Secretary Gates' visit earlier this year? That was just a coincidence, Chen said, and he quoted Gates himself as saying that he didn't interpret the flight as a warning or a threat.
China's military modernization is aimed at its "separatist forces," Chen said, in the translator's phrase, which have taken over what he views as the province of Taiwan. Although Beijing wants Taiwan to reunify with the mainland peacefully, it is prepared to defend itself or act militarily if the "separatist forces" on Taiwan do anything provocative, Chen said. So because Taiwan remains part of China, Chen expressed puzzlement as to why it might want to buy weapons -- including, potentially, a new batch of F-16s -- from the United States. The law that encourages the U.S. to do such deals, the Taiwan Relations Act, is best described as "hegemonic," Chen said, and he warned that no one should try to hem China in using one of its own territories.
"Efforts to contain China's development using Taiwan would be futile," he said.
So there you have the view from Beijing, which sent its top military commander to Washington this week with a list of three main complaints for the United States: Its arms sales to Taiwan (an eternal point of dispute); its reconnaissance ships and aircraft off the Chinese coast; and restrictions on some of the military-to-military exchanges it would like to make. The second two points were afterthoughts compared to Taiwan, which dominates Chinese thinking in a way that can surprise Americans who want to compartmentalize or re-prioritize the various issues with China. By all appearances Chen's visit was cordial and correct, but he summed up his biggest goal when he told reporters at the Pentagon on Wednesday that he hoped the U.S. would "review" the Taiwan Relations Act.
He also lectured the reporters in the audience that the American news media distorts the threat posed by the PLA -- American journalists and others over-hype China's military capabilities and ambitions, he said, and he hoped that after his visit, they would live up to their reputation for objectivity and put China and the PLA in a more positive light.