A “Historic Moment of Choice”

Chinese Minster of Defense General Chen Bingde delivers remarks at the National Defense University, May 18, 2011.

The most difficult part about watching an official speech – be it on policy or otherwise – is to separate the platitudes from the substance, assuming there is any of the latter. The meat of public remarks can often be found in soundbite form, or on a single slide of a powerpoint presentation. It is also equally possible to sit through an entire thirty minute speech and to hear absolutely nothing that hasn’t been said before.

Fortunately, that was not the case when Chen Bingde spoke at the National Defense University last week. While granted, much of the talk consisted of appeals to American sensibilities and national interests, there were some moments of real substance in it.

General Chen opened by declaring this to be an “official goodwill visit,” and that the Chinese sought mutual respect and benefits for both parties in Sino-American relations. He reminded us that the Chinese name for the United States translated to ‘beautiful country’.

Stressing the bilateral nature of the U.S. and China’s shared responsibilities for peace and development, Chen declared the two nations at a “historic moment of choice.” He also frequently referred to the “new circumstances” in Sino-American relations, that essentially allow for a reset in those relations. This, he said, is a shakeup of the previous mindset. (From here, I’m mostly paraphrasing the general, so if it sounds like I am stating his opinion as fact, please note that it is for ease of tense only).

Going forward, the U.S. and China must respect and accommodate each other’s core interests (without “imposing one’s own will on the other”). A stable government and political system are essential for China, said Chen, as is guaranteeing China’s socio-economic development, sovereignty, and territorial sanctity. (Stability, of course, is a recurring theme in Chinese thought.) Mutual trust can be bolstered through dialogue and communications in broad areas, so as to avoid suspicion. Chen emphasized the importance of military-to-military relations, claiming that it was a lack of these that have led to our equating the rise of China with a suspicion of the Chinese military.

It is crucial to recognize our greater common interests, and to avoid mutual competition. The two nations are more interdependent than ever, and to continue acting unilaterally will result in a downward spiral. Shared interests can lay the foundation for a new era in relations, such as membership on the UN Security Council and our “inseparable” economies. Active cooperation will benefit both; confrontation will leave neither unscathed.

As well, China and the U.S. have growing common security interests, such as terrorism, WMD proliferation, climate change, and energy and food security. While praising President Obama for the killing of Osama bin Laden, Chen stressed that the root causes of terror remain unchanged and cannot be solved alone. Therefore, it is “natural and necessary” that the two militaries work together.

Chen was emphatic in characterizing China’s development as “unswervingly peaceful,” and reminded everyone that the Rise of China remains a hugely popular topic. China is ready for it, he declared, leaving unsaid whether or not the United States is. He also placed China at the forefront of global security: “world peace is closely associated with China’s development.” Their greatest desire is that China and the livelihood of the Chinese continue to improve.

The general vowed that China would “never seek hegemony or expansion,” and that the general sentiment was “internal harmony and development; external peace and collaboration.” This, of course, implies a subordination of military goals and spending to that of overall Chinese quality of life. Whether that balance continues (or exists today) remains to be seen.

As an example of the sincerity of a Chinese desire for military-to-military relations, Chen cited the case of Liu Yiquan, a PLA archivist who has been seeking out the MIA records of World War II-era GIs lost in the People’s Republic. This section of the talk was structured almost as a carrot-and-stick approach, however – Chen went from Liu to warning the audience that “whenever China is ignored,” relations suffer.

But of course, incremental progress is being made. General Chen and Admiral Mullen already agree on much, said the former, and the latter has accepted an invitation to visit China. More than anything, Chen hoped for an “objective and accurate” picture of China and its military.

Then came the issue of Taiwan.

One of the clear requirements for successful bilateral relations was that the two parties would handle their differences and sensitive issues “appropriately,” and with prudence and discretion. Along those lines, Taiwan remains a Chinese core interest, and an issue of territorial integrity. Chen described the Chinese stance on Taiwan to be akin to that of Abraham Lincoln’s desire to preserve the Union, and the sentiment was echoed by a Powerpoint slide featuring a picture of the Great Emancipator along with the line “the Union is unbroken.”

After the talk, I spoke with the retired captain who had invited me, who informed that the Chinese really were sincere about this belief.

Chen launched from Lincoln into the Flying Tigers of World War II, in support of which homing pigeons were stationed in China. According to Chen, the descendants of those birds remain in the service of the PLA, and as birds of peace, are a reminder of the “glorious friendship” the U.S. and China once enjoyed (disregarding the fact that the Flying Tigers were operating in support of the Republic of China).

That, more or less, concluded the actual talk, and then it was on to the question-and-answer period.

One question asked about Chinese counterpiracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden, and whether further deployments might be forthcoming. General Chen explained that Chinese contributions to peacekeeping operations had begun more than two decades earlier, and that they were seen as very meaningful.

However, he admitted Chinese limitations, mainly owing to inexperience in overseas operations and linguistic barriers. He did say that when other countries’ own efforts had failed, China stepped up to fill the breach, and thus still had forces abroad operating under a UN mandate. Chen took great care to stress that China had no troops deployed abroad without the aegis of the UN.

In terms of counterpiracy, he also admitted that it was a difficult task, but asserted China’s resolve to fight pirates both on the seas and on land – an interesting possibility when coupled with China’s growing presence in Africa. Pirates on the sea are of lower ranks, he said – the real masterminds stay on land. Even so, China faces a real development with regards to the PLAN. Compared to the U.S. Navy, Chinese equipment is relatively “poor” (his word), and there remains a “twenty-year gap” between the naval capabilities of China and Western nations. The real dilemma is that new ships will strain the budget and antagonize the United States, plus more ships in the Gulf mean less are available for immediate littoral and green-water defense.

Still, Chen asked everyone to look at Chinese military history. Every time China “won,” they were considered by outside observers to be “underdeveloped.” It is also unfortunate, he added, that the U.S. maintains its high-tech export sanctions.

The final question was relatively simple: where has the People’s Liberation Army made the most and least progress, respectively?

The weaknesses of the Chinese military have evolved over time, and one of the major military lessons for China has been offered by the United States. The most progress has been made in terms of people. Officers and soldiers used to be much more poorly educated, with high rates of attrition, but now they are far better educated and certified, with a new a growing corps of officers with technical and logistics expertise.

Doctrinally, the PLA has been adapted some from around the world to fit its own purposes. The improvements made over the last two decades have gone hand-in-hand with China’s economic growth. At this point, the PLA is not necessarily the “biggest” (presumably on a qualitative scale?), but ‘it is what it is’.

The last point provided a moment of levity. The PLA has made the least progress on informationization. China has not had enough military IT development, leaving their capabilities rudimentary at best, but networks remain in poor shape. Chen expressed his regret at this, saying he wanted to do better, but it’s an expensive undertaking. He then suggested that perhaps the American audience could lend him the money to do so.

The Q & A, in particular, was far more informative than I would have expected. It remains to be seen how seriously both sides engage in the manner suggested by General Chen, but there does exist a template for peaceful relations according to Chinese standards.

Many thanks to the NDU, the captain who invited me, and to Chen himself for delivering the talk.