China: The U.S. Military Rules, and We Know It

Erika Johnsen

5/18/2011 5:14:00 PM - Erika Johnsen

This week, a Chinese military delegation led by General Chen Bingde of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is visiting the United States for the first such visit in seven years. Chen and his colleagues are meeting with Secretary of State Clinton, Defense Secretary Gates, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen, ostensibly to stabilize the U.S.–China military-to-military relationship.

Pentagon officials hope the visit, which begins Monday in Washington, will mark a fresh beginning for a prickly, start-and-stop relationship between the two military behemoths of the Asia-Pacific region…

The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important in the world, given traditional U.S. security and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and the rapid modernization of a Chinese military viewed with increasing suspicion by U.S. allies in the region.

China has been investing heavily in items that enable it to project power well beyond its shores; it is expected, for example, to complete construction of its first aircraft carrier this year. And it is focused on capabilities — such as cyber warfare and missiles that could be used to sink or paralyze American carriers — that could deny U.S. access to Asian theaters of war.

The Chinese have been none-too-pleased with United States since the Obama administration approved a $6.4 billion weapons sale to Taiwan in January 2010 (seeing as how China claims that Taiwan is really a Chinese territory, and the U.S. is legally obliged to provide Taiwan with sufficient defense assets to defend itself, and all). Some of that tension was dispelled with Defense Secretary Gates’ visit to China last winter and President Hu Jintao’s following visit to the United States, hence the buddy-buddy visit this week. (Honestly, how could Hu stay mad at the U.S. after that beautiful state dinner last January!)

In a speech at the National Defense University today, General Chen said he recognizes that China is no match for the United States militarily, that there is an at least 20-year “gaping gap” between our technological capabilities, and that “China never intends to challenge the U.S.” (I am wildly skeptical of China not aspiring to eventually get on America's level and potentially challenge us, just for the record.)

It is always fun to remind the world that the United States has the fiercest, most hardcore military on the planet, but is it really necessary to show off to somewhat-unfriendly countries that never sincerely extend the same courtesy? Defense officials predict that the visit will amount to nothing more than officers getting together and taking some tours, and do not seem to expect any real policy-progress from the trip.