Building a new relationship in Shangri-La

Contrary to coverage of the Sino-US relationship that greeted the publication of the latest Pentagon report on Chinese military power, Secretary of Defense William Gates is in Singapore, setting out the terms of Sino-US security cooperation (and building on visits to China by General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Admiral Timothy Keating, head of US Pacific Command).

At the Shangri-La Dialogue, convened annually by the International Institute of Strategic Studies in Singapore, Secretary Gates gave a speech that focuses mostly on trying to convince East Asia’s powers that the fate of Central Asia is as much their interest as the interest of the US. But it concludes by summing up the US-China defense relationship for all in attendance:

The United States shares common interests with China on issues like terrorism, counter proliferation, and energy security. But we are concerned about the opaqueness of Beijing’s military spending and modernization programs issues described in the annual report on the Chinese armed forces recently released by the U.S. government. But as General Pete Pace, our Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out, there is some difference between capacity and intent. And I believe there is reason to be optimistic about the U.S.-China relationship.

We have increased military-to-military contacts between all levels of our militaries, most recently dramatized when General Pace sat in the cockpit of the top-of-the-line Chinese fighter during his last visit. We obviously have a huge economic and trade relationship. Indeed, I have been told that if just one American company Wal-Mart was a country, it would be China’s eighth largest trading partner. The second meeting of the U.S.-China Strategic Economic Dialogue concluded last week in Washington, D.C. a process designed to improve our economic bilateral relationship. As we gain experience in dealing with each other, relationships can be forged that will build trust over time.

As the New York Times reports on Gates’s speech, this supposedly contrasts with former Secretary Rumsfeld’s speech at Shangri-La in 2005, when he essentially reiterated the contents of the Pentagon report on China’s military modernization. But the Times is misleading: the new embrace of China by Washington has been a long time in coming, even if Rumsfeld’s stance on China was ambivalent at best.

Reiterating his ideas in a press conference following his speech, Gates said in response to a question from a PLA colonel:

I’ve always believed that the years-long negotiations on strategic arms limitations may or may not have made much of a contribution in terms of limiting arms. But they played an extraordinarily valuable role in creating better understanding on both the Soviet and American sides about what the strategic intentions of each side were, what the strategic thinking was, what their motives were, where they were headed. That dialogue that continued intensively for something like twenty years built a cadre of people who were accustomed to working and talking with one another, who were on opposite sides of a major conflict, and I think that — while we have no conflict at this point — this kind of transparency, this kind of discussion is the kind of thing that prevents miscalculation and helps each side understand where the other is headed and what its intentions are.

This is by no means revolutionary change, but it suggests a Sino-US relationship cushioned from the thorny issues surrounding human rights, democracy, Tibet, Taiwan, etc. Whatever events shake the relationship, whatever outside actors (the US Congress, NGOs, etc.) do to raise issues of concern, the relationship will rest in the hands of a “cadre” (how funny that Gates used that word in the Sino-US context) that will keep things on an even keel. Come to think of it, not altogether unlike the US-Japan relationship for most of the cold war, in which alliance managers successfully cordoned off the security relationship from other concerns.

What will be the basis of security cooperation? This People’s Daily article suggests that the PLA at least knows what the US wants to hear, with General Zhang Qinsheng, the PLA’s deputy chief of staff telling the Shangri-La gathering that China is interested primarily in stability in the region. Zhang said, “International relations in the region are generally stable. Regional cooperation continues to deepen. Economic cooperation and trade is more active than ever. Multiple cultures prosper side by side. Security dialogues are increasingly pragmatic to maintain peace, avoid confrontation and promote development have become shared goals of the Asia-Pacific countries.” While that might sound like pablum, for all the tension surrounding maritime claims and energy resources, Asia is shockingly peaceful — barring the Taiwan Straits — considering that the region is home to some of the most significant military and economic powers in the world. To date, Aaron Friedberg’s “struggle for mastery in Asia” (PDF) has not quite come to pass.

And what of Japan? Japan was but a footnote in Secretary Gates’s speech, grouped with South Korea in a passing reference to how the US is updating old alliances for the new security environment. I cannot help but wonder if that’s increasingly how Japan looks to Washington: potentially useful if it gets its legal and constitutional act together (although constitution revision may not be an unmitigated boon for the alliance, as discussed here), but otherwise a distraction for the US as it considers the shape of the broader region and the world. Gates does not strike me as a man who has the time or the patience to indulge Japan’s neuroses — and with no Japan hands in other senior positions in the Pentagon (or at State), it seems that Gates has plenty of company.

So military-military cooperation may continue, but as I have argued before, the strategic direction is withering, with the US no longer looking at Asia through a Japanese lens.

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