“Every nation has a right to defend itself and to spend as it sees fit for that purpose, but a gap as wide as what seems to be forming between China’s stated intent and its military programs leaves me more than curious about the end result,” said Admiral Mike Mullen this Wednesday. “Indeed, I have moved from being curious to being genuinely concerned.”
It’s about time the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in public, expressed disquiet about the Chinese military buildup. For decades, American flag officers, many of them from the Navy, have remained optimistic about America’s military relations with China. And after every Chinese hostile act — even those constituting direct attacks on the United States, such as the March 2009 attempt to interfere with the Impeccable in the South China Sea — American admirals have either remained silent or said they were “perplexed” or “befuddled” by Beijing’s intentions.
Why the befuddlement? The assumption in Washington has been that America was so powerful that we could integrate hardline Chinese leaders into a liberal international system they had no hand in creating. To this end, successive administrations sought, among other things, to foster ties between the American and Chinese militaries.
The Pentagon, therefore, pushed for port calls, reciprocal visits of officers, a hot line, and an incidents-at-sea agreement, with varying degrees of success. Admiral Timothy Keating even went so far as to offer to help China build aircraft carriers.
Keating’s offer, made in May 2007 when he was commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, may have been extended with the knowledge the Chinese would reject it, but the apparent generosity was nonetheless in keeping with the general approach of the Navy during the Bush administration, an approach that President Obama has also adopted. So if there is any significance to Mullen’s recent comment, it is that the American military, at the highest levels, is beginning to voice in open forums its doubts about Beijing’s ultimate intentions. At this point, however, the expressions of “genuine concern” remain muted.
Senior Chinese officers, on the other hand, have no trouble telling us how they really feel.