From opera to war games, US and China deepen military ties

 23 May 2013 - 3:38

By Peter Apps

Even as the United States accuses China of military espionage and worries about Beijing’s more strident posture in the Asia-Pacific region, the ties between the armed forces of the two nations have been getting closer. 

Direct contact between China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and some of its potential adversaries has increased dramatically in the last two years.

The first major public sign of the thaw was a joint concert by the US Army band and its Chinese counterpart in 2011 at Washington’s Kennedy Center where a female US sergeant and a well-known male Chinese singer in a PLA uniform belted out a duet in Italian from the opera La Traviata.

On a more serious note, China hosted US officers in the city of Nanjing this month to discuss countering pirates, and the United States has invited China to attend the Rim of the Pacific major naval exercises next year.

The increased contact aims to lessen the risk of accidental conflict between nuclear powers as their militaries each learn how the other works and cooperate on uncontroversial issues like disaster prevention and disease control. 

The amiable spirit in these areas does not mean China and the United States are any less wary of each other on thorny subjects like allegations of Chinese cyber-spying, the possibility of an arms race in space, and the US military’s “pivot” to Asia with a build-up of its forces in the Pacific. 

Some discussions have been remarkably blunt - with Chinese officials sometimes telling US counterparts that Washington should quit the entire western Pacific and cede influence there to Beijing

Still, US Air Force Major General Michael Keltz has seen a big change. When he first met with senior Chinese officials in late 2011, the atmosphere was stilted at best. Keltz says they stuck firmly to their prearranged “talking points”, sometimes literally reading from pieces of paper.

“There has been a considerable improvement in both volume and quantity (of meetings and exchanges),” says Keltz, head of policy and planning for the US Pacific Command - a role that includes explaining US military thinking to Chinese officials. 

Now, Chinese officers are less likely to stall routine conversations with their American opposite numbers by berating them for what they see as anti-China policies such as US support for Taiwan.

After decades of relative isolation, greater military engagement with the outside world is at the heart of Beijing’s increasingly assertive military strategy. China’s military budget has grown by double digits almost every year for the past decade and it now fields its own aircraft carrier and is testing Stealth fighters. 

China has become the largest contributor of U.N. peacekeepers of any of the permanent five Security Council members. 

“The Chinese army is now getting much more involved globally,” PLA Major-General Chao Liu, China’s former defense attaché to India and now commander of UN peacekeepers in Cyprus, told Reuters earlier this year. “The differences (with the rest of the world) will become less, I think.” 

For the United States, there are clear advantages to learning more about a possible foe while at the same time drawing China further into the global system. 

Increased contact with China’s military gives the United States a chance to explain its new strategic focus on Asia which Beijing fears is a containment strategy to check China’s economic and military rise. 

The US Pacific Command alone has some 40 exchanges with China planned for this year including talks on military medicine - particularly preparedness for a pandemic outbreak of a disease - and planning for joint maritime search and rescue operations. 

And it goes beyond the US to its Western allies. Australia has conducted its own joint exercises with China and is discussing more. European states are stepping up their own links and visits and NATO is considering much closer liaison, perhaps over areas such as peacekeeping in Africa.

While some Western officials complain that Chinese warships operating alongside international forces in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia have spent at least as much time spying on foreign warships as hunting pirates, their presence there is broadly welcomed. 

More informal links are increasingly embraced. Retired Western officers in particular are setting up loose networks and visits, sometimes bringing along serving personnel.

However, there are tensions on some major points of disagreement.

US officials say they believe China is preparing a missile test to build its capability to knock down US satellites. And last year, a series of maritime border disputes brought friction between China and US allies such as Japan and the Philippines. 

The most persistent bone of contention is cybersecurity. 

The Pentagon earlier this month charged China with widespread espionage to acquire technology to fuel its military modernization, accusing Beijing for the first time of trying to break into US defense computer networks. China issued a firm denial. 

Espionage is a major concern for the West. Before allowing Chinese personnel access to any facility in the recent exchanges, the United States and others generally conduct a “risk assessment” and security experts will often sweep afterwards for bugs. 

Reuters

 

By Peter Apps

Even as the United States accuses China of military espionage and worries about Beijing’s more strident posture in the Asia-Pacific region, the ties between the armed forces of the two nations have been getting closer. 

Direct contact between China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and some of its potential adversaries has increased dramatically in the last two years.

The first major public sign of the thaw was a joint concert by the US Army band and its Chinese counterpart in 2011 at Washington’s Kennedy Center where a female US sergeant and a well-known male Chinese singer in a PLA uniform belted out a duet in Italian from the opera La Traviata.

On a more serious note, China hosted US officers in the city of Nanjing this month to discuss countering pirates, and the United States has invited China to attend the Rim of the Pacific major naval exercises next year.

The increased contact aims to lessen the risk of accidental conflict between nuclear powers as their militaries each learn how the other works and cooperate on uncontroversial issues like disaster prevention and disease control. 

The amiable spirit in these areas does not mean China and the United States are any less wary of each other on thorny subjects like allegations of Chinese cyber-spying, the possibility of an arms race in space, and the US military’s “pivot” to Asia with a build-up of its forces in the Pacific. 

Some discussions have been remarkably blunt - with Chinese officials sometimes telling US counterparts that Washington should quit the entire western Pacific and cede influence there to Beijing

Still, US Air Force Major General Michael Keltz has seen a big change. When he first met with senior Chinese officials in late 2011, the atmosphere was stilted at best. Keltz says they stuck firmly to their prearranged “talking points”, sometimes literally reading from pieces of paper.

“There has been a considerable improvement in both volume and quantity (of meetings and exchanges),” says Keltz, head of policy and planning for the US Pacific Command - a role that includes explaining US military thinking to Chinese officials. 

Now, Chinese officers are less likely to stall routine conversations with their American opposite numbers by berating them for what they see as anti-China policies such as US support for Taiwan.

After decades of relative isolation, greater military engagement with the outside world is at the heart of Beijing’s increasingly assertive military strategy. China’s military budget has grown by double digits almost every year for the past decade and it now fields its own aircraft carrier and is testing Stealth fighters. 

China has become the largest contributor of U.N. peacekeepers of any of the permanent five Security Council members. 

“The Chinese army is now getting much more involved globally,” PLA Major-General Chao Liu, China’s former defense attaché to India and now commander of UN peacekeepers in Cyprus, told Reuters earlier this year. “The differences (with the rest of the world) will become less, I think.” 

For the United States, there are clear advantages to learning more about a possible foe while at the same time drawing China further into the global system. 

Increased contact with China’s military gives the United States a chance to explain its new strategic focus on Asia which Beijing fears is a containment strategy to check China’s economic and military rise. 

The US Pacific Command alone has some 40 exchanges with China planned for this year including talks on military medicine - particularly preparedness for a pandemic outbreak of a disease - and planning for joint maritime search and rescue operations. 

And it goes beyond the US to its Western allies. Australia has conducted its own joint exercises with China and is discussing more. European states are stepping up their own links and visits and NATO is considering much closer liaison, perhaps over areas such as peacekeeping in Africa.

While some Western officials complain that Chinese warships operating alongside international forces in anti-piracy patrols off Somalia have spent at least as much time spying on foreign warships as hunting pirates, their presence there is broadly welcomed. 

More informal links are increasingly embraced. Retired Western officers in particular are setting up loose networks and visits, sometimes bringing along serving personnel.

However, there are tensions on some major points of disagreement.

US officials say they believe China is preparing a missile test to build its capability to knock down US satellites. And last year, a series of maritime border disputes brought friction between China and US allies such as Japan and the Philippines. 

The most persistent bone of contention is cybersecurity. 

The Pentagon earlier this month charged China with widespread espionage to acquire technology to fuel its military modernization, accusing Beijing for the first time of trying to break into US defense computer networks. China issued a firm denial. 

Espionage is a major concern for the West. Before allowing Chinese personnel access to any facility in the recent exchanges, the United States and others generally conduct a “risk assessment” and security experts will often sweep afterwards for bugs. 

Reuters