Chuck Hagel got a special treat in China this week. The US Secretary of Defense was given a tour on the Chinese aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. Nothing really signals a national desire to project military might beyond one’s own shoreline quite like an aircraft carrier. The Liaoning is China’s first, and it’s clearly a symbol that Beijing intends to be a more serious player in the Asia Pacific. But giving Hagel a personal tour is also a sign of China’s willingness to respond to Washington’s calls for more transparency.
“The Chinese seized upon the opportunity of the Hagel visit,” says retired US Admiral Michael McDevitt. “Currently the military-to-military cooperation [between Beijing and Washington] is in a good place. It has been for the last 13 or 14 months.”
The US and China are also dealing with some tricky disagreements on security matters, and several of them came up during a joint press conference with Hagel and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Chang Wanquan.
Hagel repeated US objections to China’s creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China sea late last year, which extends to areas claimed by some of China’s neighbors. The American defense chief was quoted in the Financial Times:
“Every nation has a right to establish an air defence zone, but not a right to do it unilaterally with no collaboration, no consultation,” Mr Hagel said. “That adds to tensions, misunderstandings and could eventually add to, and eventually get to, dangerous conflict.”
Things apparently got testy between after Gen. Chang criticized Japan for making trouble in the East China Sea and the Philippines for illegally occupying Chinese islands in the South China Sea, according to the New York Times:
At one point, Mr. Hagel appeared impatient, wagging his finger. “The Philippines and Japan are longtime allies of the United States,” he said. “We have mutual self-defense treaties with each of those countries” he continued, adding that the United States was “fully committed to those treaty obligations.”
There is a widespread view in China that the US government’s ultimate goal is to contain a rising People’s Republic. During the appearance with Hagel, Gen. Chang was quoted in the Wall Street Journal saying that China, “can never be contained.” According to the FT, one Chinese official told Hagel during a meeting that, “the Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied” with remarks made by Hagel during his visit to Japan before landing in China.
Hagel brought a message of reassurance to the Japanese. “Yes, we are drawing down some of force posture. But make no mistake,” the defense secretary said. “We are not retreating from the world.”
The Pentagon still has 400,000 men and women stationed outside the United States in 100 countries, Hagel said. “We still have by far the largest defense force in the world, the biggest budgets in the world,” he added.
Adm. McDevitt says nobody seeks a full-blown military confrontation in the Asia Pacific; not the US, not China and not Japan. But there is always the possibility of an accident leading to unintended consequences.
“Each side trying to support its position on these claims raises that possibility,” McDevitt says. “That’s one of the messages, I think, that Secretary Hagel is bringing. The more you keep pressing these things, the higher the probability of an accident. And we don’t know where that would lead.”
Questions about the Pentagon’s budget beyond 2016 are another issue. McDevitt says potential cuts in defense spending could have a direct impact on US military capabilities in the Asia Pacific. “Reassuring our friends and allies that our re-balance strategy is credible, in the face of Chinese military modernization,” McDevitt adds, this is something that presents a real conundrum for Hagel in Asia.
“The challenge is convincing everybody that we can still do what we are obligated to do by our treaties,” McDevitt says.