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Miscomprehending China

They don't want to be our friends.

11:00 PM, Mar 4, 2008 • By GORDON G. CHANG
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"WE THINK THAT ONE OF the strongest means by which to improve transparency is the mil-to-mil relationship," said Condoleezza Rice last week in Beijing. "That has really accelerated over the last several years of the Administration and we think that that's really the way that you get at transparency issues." What is the cause of America's troubled ties with the People's Republic of China? The secretary of state implies there is insufficient understanding between the two nations and the Pentagon can lead the way in building trust on both sides of the Pacific.

As a result of this perception, the Bush administration is pushing the Defense Department to step up contact with the People's Liberation Army, the world's largest military. So far, Washington's efforts are broadening the relationship with China. For instance, after meetings of American and Chinese flag officers in the port city of Qingdao, Beijing's official media announced last Wednesday that the United States and China had tentatively agreed to conduct a joint maritime drill sometime this year. The two countries have already held search-and-rescue exercises and participated in Pakistan's anti-terrorism drills.

Yet even more symbolic of the new Sino-American cooperation is the agreement, signed on Friday in Shanghai, to install a hotline between the two country's militaries. The Chinese had previously announced that they had agreed to the idea, but to the continuing annoyance of Washington refused to put the "defense telephone link" in place. In each military crisis involving China this decade Americans have expressed the opinion that communication between both sides could have averted difficulties.

The belief that exchanges of words can solve problems is characteristically American. And when it comes to the Chinese, it is, unfortunately, untrue. As an initial matter, China's central government moves slowly during crises, largely due to the fragmented nature of decision making in the Chinese capital. There are numerous civilian and military factions that must be consulted and won over before anyone can speak on behalf of the central government. In 2001, for instance, the fragile coalition that ruled China took days to decide what to say and do after a reckless Chinese fighter pilot clipped an unarmed Navy reconnaissance plane, which was forced to land on China's Hainan island.

Since then, Chinese officials have tried to clarify and streamline their decision-making process, but recent evidence shows that not much progress has been made. In November, China denied Hong Kong port-call privileges to the Kitty Hawk strike group on the day before Thanksgiving. On the day of the denial, Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi told President Bush that the turndown had been the result of a "misunderstanding." Yet a few hours later the Foreign Ministry in Beijing repudiated Yang's characterization of events.

We may never know the backstory, but clearly Yang, the foreign minister, was not in the loop. The denial of the Kitty Hawk port call came after China refused refuge to two Navy minesweepers running from an approaching storm, and it came at the same time as Beijing rejected a port call for the Reuben James, a frigate, and landing rights for a regular C-17 mission to resupply the American consulate in Hong Kong. Clearly all the turndowns were the result of a deliberate policy, and, due to the sensitive nature of the matter, that policy was undoubtedly made at the highest level of the Chinese political structure. For the country's foreign minister to have misled President Bush shows a fundamental failure of the Chinese government to execute and announce its decisions. So the issue is not whether the United States will have a communications link with an official in Beijing; it is whether there will be someone on the other end who can talk.