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U.S. alarmed by harsh tone of China's military

American military officials are worried about a shift in which young Chinese might see the United States only as a threat.
Image: US Defense Secretary Robert Gates and China's Defence Minister Liang Guanglie shake hands before their meeting in Hanoi.
US Defense Secretary Robert Gates (L) and China's Defense Minister Liang Guanglie shake hands before their meeting in Hanoi on Monday. The defense chiefs met in Hanoi in the first talks between the two nations' top military officials in about a year as they work to rebuild fragile ties.Carolyn Kaster / AFP - Getty Images
/ Source: The New York Times

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates met his Chinese counterpart, Liang Guanglie, in Vietnam on Monday for the first time since the two militaries suspended talks with each other last winter, calling for the two countries to prevent “mistrust, miscalculations and mistakes.”

His message seemed directed mainly at officers like Lt. Cmdr. Tony Cao of the Chinese Navy.

Days before Mr. Gates arrived in Asia, Commander Cao was aboard a frigate in the Yellow Sea, conducting China’s first war games with the Australian Navy, exercises to which, he noted pointedly, the Americans were not invited.

Nor are they likely to be, he told Australian journalists in slightly bent English, until “the United States stops selling the weapons to Taiwan and stopping spying us with the air or the surface.”

The Pentagon is worried that its increasingly tense relationship with the Chinese military owes itself in part to the rising leaders of Commander Cao’s generation, who, much more than the country’s military elders, view the United States as the enemy. Older Chinese officers remember a time, before the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 set relations back, when American and Chinese forces made common cause against the Soviet Union.

'Perceived enemy'
The younger officers have known only an anti-American ideology, which casts the United States as bent on thwarting China’s rise.

“All militaries need a straw man, a perceived enemy, for solidarity,” said Huang Jing, a scholar of China’s military and leadership at the National University of Singapore. “And as a young officer or soldier, you always take the strongest of straw men to maximize the effect. Chinese military men, from the soldiers and platoon captains all the way up to the army commanders, were always taught that America would be their enemy.”

The stakes have increased as China’s armed forces, once a fairly ragtag group, have become more capable and have taken on bigger tasks. The navy, the centerpiece of China’s military expansion, has added dozens of surface ships and submarines, and is widely reported to be building its first aircraft carrier. Last month’s Yellow Sea maneuvers with the Australian Navy are but the most recent in a series of Chinese military excursions to places as diverse as New Zealand, Britain and Spain.

China is also reported to be building an antiship ballistic missile base in southern China’s Guangdong Province, with missiles capable of reaching the Philippines and Vietnam. The base is regarded as an effort to enforce China’s territorial claims to vast areas of the South China Sea claimed by other nations, and to confront American aircraft carriers that now patrol the area unmolested.

Even improved Chinese forces do not have capacity or, analysts say, the intention, to fight a more able United States military. But their increasing range and ability, and the certainty that they will only become stronger, have prompted China to assert itself regionally and challenge American dominance in the Pacific.

That makes it crucial to help lower-level Chinese officers become more familiar with the Americans, experts say, before a chance encounter blossoms into a crisis.

“The P.L.A. combines an odd combination of deep admiration for the U.S. armed forces as a military, but equally harbors a deep suspicion of U.S. military deployments and intentions towards China,” David Shambaugh, a leading expert on the Chinese military at George Washington University, said in an e-mail exchange, referring to the People’s Liberation Army.

“Unfortunately, the two militaries are locked in a classic security dilemma, whereby each side’s supposedly defensive measures are taken as aggressive action by the other, triggering similar countermeasures in an inexorable cycle,” he wrote. “This is very dangerous, and unnecessary.”

From the Chinese military’s view, this year has offered ample evidence of American ill will.

The Chinese effectively suspended official military relations early this year after President Obama met with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan religious leader, and approved a $6.7 billion arms sale to Taiwan, which China regards as its territory.

Since then, the Chinese military has bristled as the State Department has offered to mediate disputes between China and its neighbors over ownership of Pacific islands and valuable seabed mineral rights. And when the American Navy conducted war games with South Korea last month in the Yellow Sea, less than 400 miles from Beijing, younger Chinese officers detected an encroaching threat.

The United States “is engaging in an increasingly tight encirclement of China and constantly challenging China’s core interests,” Rear Adm. Yang Yi, former head of strategic studies at the Chinese Army’s National Defense University, wrote in August in the People’s Liberation Army Daily, the military newspaper. “Washington will inevitably pay a costly price for its muddled decision.”

Confidence to say no
In truth, little in the American actions is new. Mr. Obama’s predecessors also hosted the Dalai Lama. American arms sales to Taiwan were mandated by Congress in 1979, and have occurred regularly since then. American warships regularly ply the waters off China’s coast and practice with South Korean ships.

But Chinese military leaders seem less inclined to tolerate such old practices now that they have the resources and the confidence to say no.

“Why do you sell arms to Taiwan? We don’t sell arms to Hawaii,” said Col. Liu Mingfu, a China National Defense University professor and author of “The China Dream,” a nationalistic call to succeed the United States as the world’s leading power.

That official military relations are resuming despite the sharp language from Chinese Army officials is most likely a function of international diplomacy. President Hu Jintao is scheduled to visit Washington soon, and American experts had predicted that China would resume military ties as part of an effort to smooth over rough spots before the state visit.

Some experts see increased contact as critical. A leading Chinese expert on international security, Zhu Feng of Peking University, says that the Chinese military’s hostility toward the United States is not new, just more open. And that, he says, is not only the result of China’s new assertiveness, but its military’s inexperience on the world stage.

“Chinese officers’ international exposure remains very limited,” Mr. Zhu said. “Over time, things will improve very, very significantly. Unfortunately, right now they are less skillful.”

Greater international exposure is precisely what American officials would like to see. Americans hope renewed cooperation will lead to more exchanges of young officers and joint exercises.

“It’s time for both militaries to reconsider their tactics and strategy to boost their friendship,” Mr. Zhu said. “The P.L.A. is increasing its exposure internationally. So what sort of new rule of law can we figure out to fit the P.L.A. to such new exposure? It’s a challenge not just for China, but also for the U.S.”

Jonathan Ansfield and Li Bibo contributed research.

This story, "U.S. Alarmed by Harsh Tone of China's Military," originally appeared in The New York Times.