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UPDATED: April 12, 2014 NO. 16 APRIL 17, 2014
Agreeing to Disagree
Building a new-type China-U.S. military relationship requires both sides' efforts and frankness
By Ding Ying

CANDID TALKS: Chinese President Xi Jinping meets with visiting U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in Beijing on April 9 (LI TAO)

The military relationship between China and the United States has been falling behind the process of building a new-type relationship between two major powers. U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's recent China visit proved that a great deal of efforts must still be made by both sides to strengthen mutual trust and respect in spite of differences.

An unusual visit

The tone of Hagel's China tour from April 7 to 10 was very unusual. Unlike the cliché "cordial and friendly atmosphere" between high-level exchanges, Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of China's Central Military Commission, straightforwardly expressed dissatisfaction during talks with Hagel on April 8 for the latter's remarks. Chinese observers are also concerned that Washington's behavior might cause a new round of disputes in the region.

This was Hagel's first visit to China since he took office last year. China was one of the stops of his 10-day Asia trip, which also took him to Japan and Mongolia. In an interview with Japan's Nikkei newspaper on April 5, Hagel criticized China's air defense identification zone over the East China Sea as provocative and unilateral. Hagel hosted talks with Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) defense ministers in Hawaii in early April, where he brought up topics of growing U.S. concern about territorial disputes in the South China Sea.

"Hagel's attitude was astonishing," said Zhang Qingmin, a professor of diplomacy with Peking University. "No other high-ranking U.S. officials publicly backed Japan like Hagel." Zhang added that Washington's tough attitude reflected its inflated sense of crisis.

Hagel has publicly supported Japan's claim and welcomed the country's review of the self-defense aspect of its Constitution in spite of Washington's assertions that it took no position on the Diaoyu Islands dispute. Just prior to his China visit, Hagel announced that the United States would forward-deploy two additional Aegis ballistic missile defense ships to Japan. Amid their territorial spat over the Diaoyu Islands, relations between China and Japan have been at an all-time low.

China didn't swallow the bitter pill in silence. "I can tell you frankly, your remarks made in the ASEAN defense ministers' meeting and to Japanese politicians were tough, and with a clear attitude. The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks," Fan told Hagel. Fan also blamed the U.S. side for apparently betraying its promises. "China hopes the United States can be a responsible great power and do more to promote regional stability and the friendship between the two countries and militaries."

U.S. attitudes on the Asia-Pacific situation have caused worry among the Chinese. Zhang noted that although Washington claimed its goal was a stable Asia-Pacific, its biased stance on territorial disputes will encourage some nations to create trouble, which is going to lead to a result that even Washington doesn't want. Hagel expressed partial attitudes to the Philippines and pointed fingers at China during the ASEAN defense ministers' meeting. Also, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill calling for the sale of frigates to Taiwan on April 7.

Zhu Chenghu, a professor with China's National Defense University, pointed out that Hagel's visit was supposed to cool down instead of heating up regional disputes. Hagel's speech in Japan had released a negative message, indulging Tokyo's irresponsible acts. The professor warned that if the U.S. side insists on partial stances, regional tension could worsen.

Previously, Hagel was considered by Chinese observers to be a "mild" Republican who opposed war, due to his experience during the Viet Nam War in the 1950s to 1960s. But his acts after taking office have brought disappointment. Hagel had visited Asia four times after becoming defense secretary, but he didn't land on China until April. The countries he visited included many neighbors of China such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines.

On June 1, 2013, Hagel declared that after his predecessor Leon Panetta's decision to station 60 percent of the U.S. fleet in the Asia-Pacific by 2020, the United States will dispatch 60 percent of its total air force in the region. Moreover, the Pentagon will deploy more troops and hi-tech weapons on land and at sea in the Asia-Pacific region, while sending 2,500 U.S. Marine Corps crew to Australia every year.

Zhu Chenghu said that the China-U.S. relationship is a wind vane in the region, and regional disputes are connected to U.S. involvement. "If the U.S. side doesn't take its responsibility of maintaining regional peace and stability as it promised, then the regional situation will remain restless," he stressed.

Mutual trust needed

In spite of differences, the China-U.S. military relationship is still on the right track of strengthening cooperation. Chinese observers remain optimistic about the development of bilateral military relations. They believed that if the two sides accumulate mutual trust with patience through communication and cooperation, their military relationship might be a new highlight of China-U.S. relations.

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