Keating in China

Admiral Timothy Keating, newly minted chief of US Pacific Command, is currently visiting China to meet with PLA brass. As documented by Dana Priest and Robert Kaplan, among others, the heads of the US Military’s unified combatant commands wield tremendous military power, of course, but also diplomatic power (America’s “proconsuls,” to use the imperial metaphor that has perhaps gone out of favor in recent years).

As powerful as Keating is, though, his PLA interlocutors may very well wield power that puts his to shame. As Bates Gill and Martin Kleiber write in Foreign Affairs regarding China’s ASAT test, “Put bluntly, Beijing’s right hand may not have known what its left hand was doing. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and its strategic rocket forces most likely proceeded with the ASAT testing program without consulting other key parts of the Chinese security and foreign policy bureaucracy — at least not those parts with which most foreigners are familiar.”

Keating, in fact, pressed General Guo Boxiong, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, on the test, insisting that it sent a confusing signal and demanding an explanation.

While signs of the PLA’s predominance are worrying, Keating’s trip in general is encouraging, ensuring that the two militaries have, at the very least, cordial relations.

I also found comments by Guo reported by the People’s Daily interesting: “Guo said both China and the United States shoulder responsibilities of safeguarding world peace and stability and promoting common development. The two countries are both stake holders and constructive partners who share strategic interests, and China attaches great importance to China-U.S. relations.” While one cannot put too much stock in China’s rhetoric, it is interesting that they are accommodating the US government’s “responsible stakeholder” ideas. China certainly has nothing to lose from presenting itself as a responsible stakeholder — hence the “peaceful rise” rhetoric — and will no doubt continue to do so until it finds something else to be more beneficial.

In any case, China is not going away, and the US (and Japan) might as well figure out how to ensure stable relations with Beijing instead of making things up as they go along.

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