A week before Hu Jintao visits Washington, defense secretary Robert Gates flew to Beijing to meet with the Chinese president and soothe some of the tension that has erupted between the world’s two largest economies in recent months.
As China is rising, it is becoming more assertive. Conflict has been brewing in the South China Sea especially where China’s revisionist stance on maritime borders has frustrated Southeast Asian neighbors and the United States alike.
This body of water, through which passes a third of all commercial maritime traffic worldwide and half of the hydrocarbons destined for Japan, the Korean Peninsula and northeast China, is of immense strategic importance to the Chinese but similarly vital to the continental Asian countries as Thailand and Vietnam as well as Indonesia.
China has been complaining of an American shadow over the South China Sea but observers in the United States are worried about China’s naval ambitions. The country is both modernizing and expanding its armed forces even if “in terms of global seapower,” as James Pritchett noted last year, China is likely to remain “in the second band of naval powers for some time to come.”
An improved military relationship could mend part of that mutual mistrust. In Beijing, Gates will ask for greater transparency from Chinese leaders about the state and intent of their secretive armed forces. He plans to make the case for regular face to face discussions between military officials from both sides. Such meetings already exist for political leaders and diplomats. The secretary will probably also urge the Chinese to put greater pressure on their allies in North Korea.
The communist pariah state has been unusually bellicose in recent months. In March of last year the regime sunk a South Korean corvette and in November, it shelled an island near the demarcation line that has separates the two Koreas since they ceased fire in 1953. The country is assumed to possess nuclear weapons technology and has tested intercontinental ballistic missiles.
As North Korea will keep inventing crisis in order to legitimize its dictatorship, Beijing will eventually run out of excuses to shield its communist ally from repercussions.
There is mounting discord among the Chinese leadership over how to cope with the North’s posturing. The division is reflective of China’s two camps. On the one hand are the hardliners who occupy prominent posts in the military and at Communist Party schools. They suspect that the United States are conniving to deceive China and keep it poor. On the other side, internationally-oriented bureaucrats, including many in the Foreign Ministry and banking sector, argue for peaceful ties with the West instead. Chinese civilian leaders have expressed growing puzzlement and anger about North Korea’s behavior meanwhile.
Secretary Gates will be in Asia all week. After visiting China, he will travel to Japan and South Korea, two of the United States’ partners in the region. American and South Korean naval forces held combined exercises in the Yellow Sea last November and finalized a trade agreement four weeks ago.