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Will China make Gates’ visit worth the trip?

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to China and Japan this week in what will be the most public demonstration of the resumption of the U.S.-China military to military relationship since Beijing suspended cooperation early in 2010. However, the future of military cooperation between the two world powers is far from determined. The Gates trip ...

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to China and Japan this week in what will be the most public demonstration of the resumption of the U.S.-China military to military relationship since Beijing suspended cooperation early in 2010. However, the future of military cooperation between the two world powers is far from determined.

The Gates trip follows a series of discussions between U.S. and Chinese defense officials last month on how to improve ties between the Pacific's two most important military powers. The Chinese cut off military relations in February 2010 to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, but the Obama administration has held firm in its stance that military cooperation is mutually beneficial to both countries, and therefore should not be used as leverage over Washington by Beijing .

The question remains whether the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is genuinely interested in deepening its connections to the Defense Department or whether the resumption of talks is a way for Beijing to remove the issue from the agenda of the upcoming summit between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao later this month in Washington.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates will travel to China and Japan this week in what will be the most public demonstration of the resumption of the U.S.-China military to military relationship since Beijing suspended cooperation early in 2010. However, the future of military cooperation between the two world powers is far from determined.

The Gates trip follows a series of discussions between U.S. and Chinese defense officials last month on how to improve ties between the Pacific’s two most important military powers. The Chinese cut off military relations in February 2010 to protest U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, but the Obama administration has held firm in its stance that military cooperation is mutually beneficial to both countries, and therefore should not be used as leverage over Washington by Beijing .

The question remains whether the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is genuinely interested in deepening its connections to the Defense Department or whether the resumption of talks is a way for Beijing to remove the issue from the agenda of the upcoming summit between President Barack Obama and Chinese President Hu Jintao later this month in Washington.

"The PLA is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China." Gates said in June after being denied entry into China during a visit to Singapore for the IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

Senior defense officials in Washington view the trip as a positive step but note that Gates’ meetings are only the start of the effort to build better military ties with China.

"With Secretary Gates’ trip, I think we can agree that the military-to-military relationship has been restored," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer at a Thursday event hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies. "This trip represents a step forward, an important one we think."

But there are already a number of signs that the PLA is still skeptical of working with the Pentagon, even as they welcome Gates.

For example, Gates has no plans to visit any PLA facilities that haven’t previously been seen by U.S. officials. Such visits are often a sign that the PLA is extending an olive branch, as they did in 2005 when they allowed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to visit the PLA’s 2nd Artillery headquarters.

(UPDATE: A senior U.S. government official said that Gates will in fact visit the 2nd Artillery HQ to talk strategic issues.)

Also, in advance of the trip, the Chinese have rolled out the J20, their new advanced fighter plane, which is designed to counter (and kind of looks like) the U.S. Air Force’s F-22. That’s the plane that Gates fought successfully to end production of last year. Last week, U.S. Pacific Command head Adm. Robert Willard told the Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun that the PLA has also reached initial operating capability for its new "carrier killer" anti-ship cruise missile.

"Across a broad array of weapons systems, they are making progress,” U.S. Navy Vice Adm. David Dorsett told reporters on Wednesday. While the development of the new stealth fighter was anticipated, he said that "the speed at which they are making progress . . . we underestimated.”

So how do we measure if Gates’ China trip is a success? The longstanding goals of the Pentagon, in addition to increasing lines of communication, are to press China for more transparency in its military spending and strategic thinking, and to further institutionalize cooperation on maritime security, anti-piracy, and counter-proliferation efforts. But the Pentagon is being clear that it doesn’t expect any major steps forward during this visit.

"This is an incremental process. All too often the military-to-military relationship falls victim to people who have very high expectations," said Schiffer. "I would much rather have us make some progress that is tangible… than to put ourselves at risk by having unrealistic expectations."

Josh Rogin covers national security and foreign policy and writes the daily Web column The Cable. His column appears bi-weekly in the print edition of The Washington Post. He can be reached for comments or tips at josh.rogin@foreignpolicy.com.

Previously, Josh covered defense and foreign policy as a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly, writing extensively on Iraq, Afghanistan, Guantánamo Bay, U.S.-Asia relations, defense budgeting and appropriations, and the defense lobbying and contracting industries. Prior to that, he covered military modernization, cyber warfare, space, and missile defense for Federal Computer Week Magazine. He has also served as Pentagon Staff Reporter for the Asahi Shimbun, Japan's leading daily newspaper, in its Washington, D.C., bureau, where he reported on U.S.-Japan relations, Chinese military modernization, the North Korean nuclear crisis, and more.

A graduate of George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, Josh lived in Yokohama, Japan, and studied at Tokyo's Sophia University. He speaks conversational Japanese and has reported from the region. He has also worked at the House International Relations Committee, the Embassy of Japan, and the Brookings Institution.

Josh's reporting has been featured on CNN, MSNBC, C-Span, CBS, ABC, NPR, WTOP, and several other outlets. He was a 2008-2009 National Press Foundation's Paul Miller Washington Reporting Fellow, 2009 military reporting fellow with the Knight Center for Specialized Journalism and the 2011 recipient of the InterAction Award for Excellence in International Reporting. He hails from Philadelphia and lives in Washington, D.C. Twitter: @joshrogin

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