US and Chinese defence officials met in Beijing on Wednesday for the first high-level talks on reducing the risk of confrontation since bilateral relations were strained by a US arms sale to Taiwan and the announcement of a US plan to position troops in Australia. The talks show that the Chinese value military-to-military contacts despite frictions, and the US side assured their Chinese counterparts that there is no intention to contain China.
12th US-China Defence Consultative Talks held amid tensions
US Undersecretary of Defence for Policy Michele Flournoy held the annual talks with China's deputy chief of the army's general staff, General Ma Xiaotian, marking the first ministry-level talks since September, when the US announced a $5.85 billion upgrade package to Taiwan's Air Force, angering China. Analysts say that within the following weeks, China postponed a visit by the US Army Band and Admiral Robert Willard, head of the US Pacific Command, along with cooperative anti-piracy exercises and a military medical exchange.
In November, when President Barack Obama announced plans to deploy up to 2,500 troops in Australia, China slammed the move as "inappropriate." Hard-liners in China have termed the move, along with the boosting of military ties with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam, a US containment policy that must be opposed through greater active diplomacy.
The annual US-China Defence Consultative Talks usually provide an indication of the health of military relations between the two countries. China often breaks military contacts with the US if it is angered by US actions appearing to target China. According to analysts, China's decision to go ahead with this year's talks despite the Taiwan arms deal and other points of contention may show that the country places new importance on regular talks between the two sides and views a suspension of military exchanges as against its interests.
General Ma said pushing through with the meeting shows that both sides are committed to improving relations. "We attach great value to this platform to enhance communication, to expand common ground, to promote mutual understanding, to manage and control risks and to avoid miscalculation, this maintaining the stability of our military-to-military relationship," General Ma said.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on the same day that China's defence policy should not be a source of anxiety. "China from beginning to end pursues a defensive national defence policy, and sticks to the path of peaceful development… China's development has given the countries of the world an important opportunity. It hasn't presented and will not present a danger to any country" Mr. Hong said.
Ms. Flournoy said next year would be a "very significant" year for US-China relations and that "it's very important to cooperate on a number of issues that impact both of our countries," in an apparent reference to the coming political leadership transition in China and the US presidential election.
Report: Chinese, US Defense Officials Meet in Beijing for Annual Talks (VOA, 7 Dec 2011)
Report: Chinese, US officials in risk reduction talks (Associated Press, 7 Dec 2011)
Report: China, US hold defense talks despite frictions (China Daily, 8 Dec 2011)
US sought to allay Chinese fears of containment during talks
Ms. Flournoy said Thursday that that US moves to augment its military alliances in Asia are not intended to contain China. The talks reflected Chinese apprehensions about the regional agenda of the US but also offered the possibility of stronger ties between the two militaries.
She told reporters at a briefing on the talks that she informed her Chinese counterparts, including General Ma, that the moves were meant to reassure countries in the region of the continuing US presence and deepening defence cooperation with Australia. "We assured General Ma and his delegation that the U.S. does not seek to contain China. We do not view China as an adversary," Ms. Flournoy said.
The Undersecretary of Defence also said that the US and China planned to reschedule joint anti-piracy exercises and other exchanges postponed in September by China over the US arms sale to Taiwan.
Ms. Flournoy added that both sides also discussed crucial international issues such as North Korea's nuclear programmes, maritime disputes in the South China Sea and civil unrest and uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa.
Specific developments in military technology were not touched upon, despite recent improvements in Chinese missile technology and the launch of its first aircraft carrier. Ms. Flournoy described the aircraft carrier as something long foreseen and said the US expected China will give further explanations for the carrier’s purpose as part of steps toward greater transparency in the Chinese military.
The US is also expecting a visit next year by Chinese Vice President and expected future state leader Xi Jinping.
Report: US Official Says Military Pacts Not Aimed at China (Associated Press, 8 Dec 2011)