The Love Fest

Under China’s new leader, the People’s Liberation Army is showing rare signs of friendliness toward the United States. Can the new tone prevent a war?

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

BEIJING — Later this month, over four days that are yet to be disclosed, the most important generals in both the United States and China will face each other and see if they can set the world’s most dangerous military relationship on a safer track. Their task is to reduce the risk that any of the flashpoints proliferating on China’s periphery will escalate into war with the United States.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, is known as an affable and straight-talking army man. So too is Gen. Fang Fenghui, his counterpart at China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA).

"Fang is smart, he’s impressive, he’s his own person and he wants to make a more professional force," says one of several recent visitors who has spent productive hours with him in Beijing.

PLA leaders have always calculated that their interests are best served by allowing minimal genuine communication and revealing nothing about capabilities, intentions or systems of command. But as China’s military gets bigger and more powerful, there are signs that the calculus of secrecy is changing.

Does China have "more than 100 nuclear weapons," as the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency estimated in 2006, or 3,000, as guesstimated by a recent Georgetown University study? In what circumstances would it use them and who has the power to press the button?

Could Dempsey tell the difference between the launch signature of one of the PLA’s anti-ship ballistic missiles, with a conventional warhead, and a nuclear weapon on its way to the United States? If he urgently phoned the hotline to the Zhongnanhai Telecommunications Directorate, would he actually get through to Fang?

Until recently, the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s famous dictum — "hide one’s capacities and bide one’s time" — helped the PLA build its strength without triggering a neighborhood arms buildup in response. Its intentions were sufficiently ambiguous to discourage more powerful countries from pushing it around while its capabilities were not so scary as to provoke a serious defensive response.

But after two decades of double-digit budget hikes, the PLA can no longer use secrecy to disguise its capabilities. It has flight-tested a stealth fighter, deployed the world’s first anti-ship ballistic missile — dubbed the "assassin’s mace" in China — and launched its first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. "A bigger power does not have the option of appearing weak," says Christopher Ford, the former U.S. special representative for nuclear nonproliferation.

And with all the shiny hardware, it seems the PLA no longer has the patience to bide its time. The PLA Navy is pushing harder into disputed territories and causing almost every maritime nation in the region to increase military spending, form new security linkages with each other, and encourage the United States to accelerate its "pivot" toward China.

In December, Ford, who was then at the Hudson Institute in Washington, explained the diminishing returns of secrecy. He told PLA colonels and generals that an element of uncertainty can sometimes aid deterrence, particularly around the question of what provocation might trigger nuclear attack, but a profound lack of clarity will lead the other party to assume the worst. And this is what’s happening with China.

"Beijing’s strategic secretiveness has contributed to making it increasingly easy for Americans, and China’s own neighbors, to assume the worst about the PRC’s strategic planning and the intentions such planning supports," said Ford, in his paper on Sino-American distrust, delivered at a PLA conference on the topic in Beijing’s Fragrant Hills.

That, of course, assumes that American and regional assumptions about China’s potential for military aggression are inflated beyond reality. "If engineering a coercively Sinocentric regional or global ‘harmony’ is not in fact the PRC’s ambition, and Beijing’s objectives are indeed as benign as its leaders claim, then it is vital to bring about vastly greater transparency," Ford said. "So far, the PRC has refused to provide meaningful transparency, but I would argue that this is becoming untenable and counterproductive."

The PLA still defines the United States as its enemy-in-chief, as Gen. Fang’s deputy, Qi Jianguo, made clear in an essay in Study Times earlier this year. But the strategic calculus of secrecy may be changing with President Xi Jinping’s new leadership team.

Since October, PLA officials have been treating their U.S. counterparts with relative warmth and openness, to the point that one shocked Pentagon official privately described it as a "love fest." Australia — which has more open channels of cooperation with China than the United States or any other U.S. ally — has proposed an ambitious program of joint exercises and exchanges. Behind closed doors, it has received a "positive" in-principle reply, according to officials familiar with the talks. Prime Minister Julia Gillard publicly broached the possibility of trilateral exercises with China and the United States while touring China this week.

Last month General Fang picked up the dusty hotline and told General Dempsey that China was "willing to strengthen its communications with the U.S. military to enhance mutual trust, handle differences properly, and deepen co-operation," according to a Xinhua report confirmed by Dempsey’s public affairs officer, Col. Dave Lapan.

The United States and China are locked in a dangerous rivalry that may go on for decades. But at least the generals are talking and searching for ways to prevent accidents spiraling out of control.

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