For the first time in its history, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China will link itself to a foreign military through a telephone hotline. On February 29, China and the United States signed an agreement to set up the hotline between the two countries' defense ministries.
The agreement was made at a working meeting of China's Ministry of Defense and the U.S. Department of Defense in Shanghai. The hotline aims to give the two countries' defense and military leaders direct contact on major issues of mutual concern, especially in case of emergencies, according to China's Ministry of Defense.
Discussions on establishing a military hotline have been ongoing since Chinese President Hu Jintao and U.S. President George W. Bush agreed to advance bilateral military relations during their meeting in Washington in April 2006. A consensus was reached when U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Beijing in November 2007.
Chinese and U.S. observers say the hotline not only is a sign of closer Beijing-Washington ties, but also will help the two sides avoid potentially harmful misunderstandings. But whether it will make a difference in managing actual crises remains to be seen, they said.
"It is a well-meaning signal sent by China and the United States and shows that their relations have become more mature," said Major General Luo Yuan, Deputy Director of the World Military Studies Department of the Academy of Military Sciences of the PLA. Neither country wants to be an enemy of the other; instead, both hope to resolve potential crises through dialogue and consultation, he said.
Military exchanges between China and the United States have flourished in recent years with increased contacts and frequent exchanges of visits, said Fu Mengzi, Assistant President of the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations (CICIR). Nevertheless, because of the two countries' varying perspectives on certain issues, there is a heightened possibility of misunderstandings and frictions that might result in unpredictable crises, he said. The military hotline will help the two sides coordinate effectively to avoid crises in their bilateral relations, Fu said.
In November 2007, the U.S. aircraft carrier USS Kitty Hawk was due to arrive in Hong Kong. China first refused the ship access and later granted permission for it to dock "out of humanitarian considerations." But the United States said it was too late and the ship sailed to Japan.
In another development, the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the U.S. House of Representatives adopted a resolution on February 27 on "supporting Taiwan's democratic election," a move that drew strong opposition from China. The resolution went against the one-China policy and sent a wrong signal to Taiwan leader Chen Shui-bian, said Qin Gang, Spokesman of China's Foreign Ministry. China has requested that U.S. Congress have a clear understanding of the complexity and sensitivity of the current situation across the Taiwan Straits and the secessionist nature of the Taiwan authorities, he added. Taiwan's regional leader election is scheduled for March 22.
In the run-up to the election, the situation across the Taiwan Straits is sensitive and highly dangerous, Luo said. Neither the Chinese mainland nor the international community is willing to see chaos across the straits, which would lead to regional instability. Against this backdrop, the launch of the military hotline is of special urgency and may be taken as a measure to manage potential cross-straits crises, he said.
At the same time, Luo pointed out that discussions about the military hotline were going on well before these events. In this respect, he believes that the military hotline was not created because of certain incidents but by taking into consideration quite a number of factors.
"The crisis management is not limited to the Taiwan question but includes other issues in China-U.S. bilateral relations and even broader issues concerning the security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region," he said.
One of the issues that divide the United States and China is the military concern posed by the situation across the Taiwan Straits and also by China's growing economic and military power, said Orville Schell, a long-time writer on China affairs and Director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society in New York. He believes the hotline is a sign that there can be greater collaboration and interaction between the two countries. In this sense, it will help allay U.S. fears that China may ultimately be a challenge, he said.
"I think these kinds of efforts to facilitate better communication not only will help avoid problems, but also have very important symbolic importance," Schell said.
While most Americans are uncertain about what China's rise means for the future balance of power and Sino-American relations, this hotline will have a good effect in ensuring people that the two countries are talking and that they have a framework to work out problems before they develop into insurmountable ones, Schell said.
The hotline is both symbolic and has practical implications, said Fu of the CICIR. Military relations are the barometer of China-U.S. relations, and stronger military ties will help promote the overall development of bilateral relations, he added.
"But the hotline is not expected to resolve all problems," Fu said. "An invisible hotline-mutual trust-is as important as, if not more important than, the visible one."
Christopher Hill, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has called the establishment of the military hotline "a positive development." In this respect, it is part of the U.S. effort to have more transparency with the Chinese military, Hill said.
"The more we do this kind of thing, the safer the world will be," he said.
Robert Sutter, Professor of Asian Studies at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, said the hotline is an important symbol of engagement on the part of American and Chinese leaders. But at the same time, he said he was unsure if the new hotline would be substantial for managing crises.
Beijing and Washington first set up a telephone hotline between their heads of state in 1998. Another one was opened between China's foreign minister and the U.S. secretary of state in 2004. Besides these hotlines, China and the United States also have held talks on a regular basis through the China-U.S. Strategic Dialogue and China-U.S. Strategic Economic Dialogue mechanisms. The fifth round of the China-U.S. Strategic Dialogue in Guiyang, the capital of southwest China's Guizhou Province, in January, was the first one that included military officials since the talks began in 2005.
Sutter said he generally views hotlines as pragmatic means of communication that serve the respective interests of both countries. In recent years, this kind of engagement between China and the United States has emphasized the positive aspects of their relationship and played down the negative ones, he said. But he warned that mistrust and wariness continue on both sides, as evidenced by Pentagon's recent report to Congress.
The U.S. Department of Defense released its annual report on China's military power on March 3, highlighting the country's defense spending. While expressing opposition to the report, Foreign Ministry Spokesman Qin Gang said China urged the United States to abandon the "Cold War mentality" and take a right attitude toward China and its development. Instead of issuing reports on China's military, the United States should make concrete actions to increase mutual trust and push for constructive cooperation between the two nations, Qin said.
China's planned defense budget for 2008 is 417.769 billion yuan ($57.2 billion), an increase of 17.6 percent over last year's actual defense expenditure, Jiang Enzhu, Spokesman for the annual session of the National People's Congress, said at a recent press conference. He said the government raised the defense budget to increase benefits for Chinese service people and offset the impact of recent price hikes. More money would be spent on education and training. The increased budget also would be used to upgrade military equipment, he said.
China's military spending is lower than some other countries, such as the United States, Britain, Russia and India, in terms of the ratios of military expenditure to gross domestic product and total fiscal expenditure, Jiang said.
Improving China-U.S. relations is in the interest of both nations, said Fu of the CICIR. Since the bilateral relations have transcended national borders, the two countries have great potential for cooperation in the fields of international disaster relief, humanitarian assistance, peacekeeping and antiterrorism, in addition to traditional security, he said.
Schell said he also hopes that the agreement on the military hotline will spearhead other kinds of exchanges and joint projects.
"It's a good beginning, and I think it's a symbol of future sort of collaboration," he said. "That could happen, but it's still unclear how far this can actually go."
(With reporting by Wang Yanjuan from New York)