Can Secretary Gates Head Off Budding China-U.S. Arms Race?

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Defense Secretary Robert Gates is in Beijing this week on what news outlets are describing as a "bridge-building trip." Gates has already met with China's Defense Minister, Liang Guanglie, and spoken of the need to strengthen ties between the American and Chinese militaries, a sentiment Liang has echoed. Some onlookers, though, are skeptical about whether things can really be so harmonious between the U.S. and China, given the often-tense nature of Sino-American relations over the past year. Here are a handful of takes on Gates's trip thus far:

  • Gates: We Hope to Prevent 'Miscommunication'  According to Reuters, Gates told reporters that he and Liang "are in strong agreement that in order to reduce the chances of miscommunication, misunderstanding or miscalculation, it is important that our military-to-military ties are solid, consistent and not subject to shifting political winds." Reuters also quotes Liang, who says that he and Gates are "agreed that sustained and reliable military-to-military contacts will help reduce misunderstanding and miscalculation."

  • But Does China Want to Play?  Anne Gearan for the Associated Press writes that "the step forward on strategic talks falls short of protecting ties between the militaries from further ruptures. Liang, who is a PLA general, refused to guarantee that Beijing would refrain from suspending military ties in the future, especially if there are future arms sales to Taiwan." David Cloud for the Los Angeles Times offers a hawkish reading of the situation, writing that "there is little sign that China's military leadership wants the kind of regular contacts that Pentagon officials have been seeking for years."

  • Context of the Trip, Past and Future  Anne Gearan writes that Gates's visit "marks the symbolic end to a rocky year in which Beijing cut off defense ties with the United States over arms sales to Taiwan, the democratic island China claims, and objected to U.S. naval maneuvers in the Yellow Sea." Gearan also notes that "Gates' four-day trip to Beijing comes a week before Chinese President Hu Jintao goes to Washington, and both governments are trying to smooth over substantial friction over trade, North Korea's and Iran's nuclear programs and China's generally more assertive diplomatic posture."

  • Gates Is at a Disadvantage Here  Agence France-Presse quotes June Teufel Dreyer, a professor at the University of Miami, who says that, in AFP's words, "because China senses its economic and military might expanding, Gates will not be in a strong negotiating position." Dreyer tells AFP that Gates "will be perceived as begging to get the military relationship back on track, enabling Beijing to ask 'what do we get out of this?'"

  • We Could Be Looking at an Arms Race, writes Spencer Ackerman at Wired. Ackerman notes that China is developing new air and naval weapons; meanwhile, the U.S. plans to "spend big on long-range striking capability." His conclusion? "No one freak out, but it's easy to see an arms race developing between the U.S. and China. Pentagon chief Robert Gates' visit this week intends to squash that kind of race to the bottom before it gets going in earnest. But from the look of today, the Chinese aren't in any rush to recast the U.S.-China military relationship."

  • Watch Out, Gates, agrees Robert Haddick at Foreign Policy. "If the United States is to avoid an arms race with China, it may need a different approach than merely assuming that the Chinese also want to avoid that race," Haddick writes. "Chinese policymakers may have concluded that the coming decade is no time for China to restrain its military production ... [Gates] and other U.S. policymakers have to reckon with the possibility that China intends to use the upcoming period of retrenchment at the Pentagon to close the gap with U.S. military power in the region. If that's the case, U.S. policymakers will need to rethink their assumptions."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.