The commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific has just completed a four-day visit of China. From the look of things, little was resolved. And that’s not entirely the fault of the increasingly assertive Chinese. Admiral Timothy Keating did not take advantage of an important opportunity to set military ties on a firmer footing.
There is a clear need to do so. After Beijing denied a long-arranged Hong Kong port call to the Kitty Hawk on the day before last Thanksgiving, the carrier and its multi-ship strike group sailed back to its homeport in Japan through the Taiwan Strait. The Chinese immediately complained, expressing “grave concern.” Keating to his credit asserted the long-held policy of the United States Navy. “We don’t need China’s permission to go through the Taiwan Straits. It’s international water,” he said last Tuesday in Beijing. “We will exercise our free right of passage whenever and wherever we choose.”
There is, unfortunately, a need for such forthright statements because Beijing maintains ludicrous claims. In addition to the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese claim the entire South China Sea, creating border disputes with the Philippines, Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam and endangering long-held notions of free passage.
Beijing’s navy and air force are not yet strong enough to enforce its expansive assertions, yet the Chinese are willing to engage in provocative acts nonetheless. The downing of an unarmed Navy reconnaissance plane in April 2001 in international airspace over the South China Sea was followed in September 2002 by aggressive maneuvering against the Bowditch, an unarmed Navy oceanographic vessel in international waters in the Yellow Sea. In October 2006, a Chinese submarine for the first time surfaced in the middle of an American strike group-the Kitty Hawk’s, by the way-which can only be interpreted as a signal to the Navy to clear out of Asian waters. And before the rejection of the Kitty Hawk port call, Beijing refused refuge to two Navy minesweepers seeking to outrun a storm.
When the Kitty Hawk sailed home after the port call turndown in November, it appears a Chinese Song-class submarine closely tracked the carrier for 28 hours as it transited the Taiwan Strait. A Chinese surface ship was also involved in what some termed a confrontation. Keating denied the reports, carried widely in the Asian press, of any incident. Yet even if absolutely nothing happened this time, our admirals need to come to grips with China.
The Navy’s reaction to increasingly aggressive Chinese conduct has, over the course of this decade, been uninspiring. After each incident it has either been silent or called for more dialogue with Beijing. Keating’s recently concluded trip to China is a case in point.
At the time of the rejection of the Kitty Hawk, Keating said he was “perplexed.” Yang Jiechi, the Chinese foreign minister, compounded the mystery a few days after the incident when he told President Bush that the turndown was the result of a “misunderstanding.” A day later a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said that the refusal of the port call was not a mistake after all.
Keating’s trip, during which he met China’s top military officer and the foreign minister himself, presented a golden opportunity to clear the air. Yet he Washington Post reported that during his visit Chinese officials did not give any reason for the rejection of the Kitty Hawk port call. Keating, when asked at a news briefing in Beijing whether Chinese officials had provided an explanation, had this to say: “We didn’t spend a whole lot of time on why.”
Make that no time at all. On Thursday in Hong Kong the admiral told the audience at an Asia Society breakfast that he did not ask his Chinese hosts for the reason for their turndown. Instead, Keating talked about future visits. “Our Chinese hosts didn’t say no to the pending request. I’m hopeful, I’m optimistic, I bet that our request will be approved.”
And I’ll bet that failing to confront the issue will eventually be seen as a mistake. It’s hard to imagine how the United States can build enduring ties with China for the future by ignoring the unfriendly conduct of the present.
The troubles between the American and Chinese militaries are not merely matters of miscommunication or transparency, as the Navy often characterizes them. The fundamental problem is that China and the United States have mutually incompatible aspirations in Asia. There will be friction between the two nations as long as the Chinese harbor expansionist ambitions-and as long as the United States fails to respond.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of %%AMAZON=037550477X The Coming Collapse of China %% .