Improving U.S.-China Military Ties

If you haven't noticed, the world is watching China. Tibet, the Olympics, human rights, dangerous exports, growing economic power, environmental concerns--all ratchet up scrutiny on how China does business.

Bolstering China's bold political and trade agenda is a rapidly growing military force. Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Conway traveled to China last week to meet with top military commanders. He sat down with NEWSWEEK on Thursday to discuss the unprecedented access granted by China's secretive military. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: In China, you met with top military officials, toured military bases and saw up close some of their battlefield capabilities. What did you see? How significant was it for you as commander of the Marine Corps to make this trip?
James Conway:
I was really encouraged because they were fairly open. [People's Liberation Army Navy Commander Vice Admiral Wu Shengli] is very forward-leaning in terms of outreach to the United States … I got to see some things that had just not been divulged before.

In terms of the timing, it was really propitious in ways I didn't quite understand … Most important about the visit--and I didn't plan it this way because we had no idea about the outcome--was it was in the wake of the Taiwan elections. On Taiwan, the electorate elected a president who is not necessarily a strong believer in independence from mainland China … Of course, our policy is … that it is all one China and that they need to sort the geographic and the economic and the physical differences between their people at this point--but that they need to do it peacefully.

Will this election stabilize things?
I think there will probably be bumps, but I think China is uncomfortable that Taiwan could achieve a level of independence that they don't really support at this time. I think [the election] is certainly a step in the right direction. It certainly allows China and Taiwan, and China and the United States to have less probability for friction and more opportunity going forward to do the types of things this visit just finished doing.

Based upon what you saw, how does China stack up as a military force? What are its obvious military priorities and how do those priorities impact U.S. strategy in the region and, more importantly, the Corps' strategy in the region?
It's hard to tell based on one visit, of course. I didn't see everything … China is already a regional power and they're building an increasing capability to extend beyond their national waters with regard to their Navy. That was my primary focus. They have built a fairly impressive force-projection capability, over and above where they were just 10-15 years ago. I got to go aboard an [amphibious ship] that was just built in 2004. I got to go aboard a destroyer that was built within the last couple of years, and it was chocked with weapons systems. So they've got a fairly significant fire-projection capability already.

To get at the essence of your question, one of the people I spoke to, [regional commander Lt. Gen. Zhang Qin Sheng] has humanitarian disaster-relief responsibilities in his district in Guangzhou, yet the Chinese have been reluctant in the past, when you've seen natural disaster in the Asia-Pacific [region], to send forward a capability.

We could work together, share ideas, offer [tactics, techniques and procedures] to each other, maybe war-game or table-top some of these experiences. Then we could deploy a force together. [It] seems to me to be the type of thing that would be very productive both with regard to our relationship [and,] more importantly, at the time [when] you've got a nation that's suffering some natural disaster.

Was he receptive?
There seems to be some interest in that, and I want to pursue that. If it doesn't happen, it will be because they don't want to do it, not because we haven't offered. We can't let these things be rhetoric at this point. We've got to act on them.

U.S. officials consider China to be a leading espionage threat due to its aggressive efforts to expand capabilities. How did knowing that color the visit, or did it? How would you feel about reciprocating such a visit on U.S. soil?
The espionage thing is real … I'm not naive to think it doesn't happen with other countries, as well, but it's certainly happening with China. It's disconcerting.

I'd like to think, though, that if in an ideal world, if we can come closer together, there's less fear, less apprehension … and an acceptance that friends don't spy on each other. I don't know--that may be idyllic, that may be decades in the coming. I'd like to think that if we are able to do some of the things that we talked about during this visit, the end result would be much less of that.

[Extending a return invite is] going to be one of the first things that we do here. It's in process right now, to invite [Admiral Wu] to the U.S. sometime in the near future, so we can take him to some of our Marine bases and show him something analogous to what they showed me.

According to the most recent annual report to Congress on its military capabilities, China continues to accelerate the pace and scope of its military modernization plan. This report also highlights that the modernization plan is fueled by preparation for contingencies in the Taiwan Strait and the possibility that the United States could intervene. What does this ramp up signify to you?
I don't think anybody knows for sure. I don't think that we know--I certainly didn't uncover as a result of this visit --what the Chinese long-term strategy is … China is a big fish. And I accept any nation, especially with the industrial might and the economic might that China has, has a reasonable expectation to be able to protect themselves. I think it's fitting that China has a substantial military.

I think that if even tensions do settle over Taiwan, China will continue to develop a military that is more technologically advanced than it is now. I think they want to make it a more professional Army, Marine Corps and Air Force. They've got some ways to go, but they've made significant progress over the last several years.

They've got some ways to go. How so?
Their perspective is that they're building a force that has no combat experience … That's both a blessing and a curse if you're a military man, because you don't have combat-experienced leadership. At the same time, neither have you lost some of your great young men and women in the service.

That they've got some very good hardware is evident. I had a chance to ride on their version of the expeditionary fighting vehicle [EFV]. They would not--it was the only thing they would not do--put it up on plane for me and go 30 knots across what was relatively smooth seas. [The Marine Corps is aiming for its own EFV, currently under development, which can launch from an amphibious ship, ride atop waves to the shore and convert into an armored personnel carrier.]

Why not?
The admiral who was down in the south there said, "No, I'm not going to do that. Admiral Wu will have to order me personally." So there you've got some old-think, that we don't show them all our cards and we don't do what they ask us to do just because they're visiting.

Given the Corps's current commitments in Iraq and now Afghanistan, would Marines be able to take on a contingency in the Asia-Pacific region?
We can take on contingencies still. We are hard-pressed … We've got units in the states who are at various levels of training. We've got a reserve, and that's what they do--they respond to emergencies. In the event of a crisis, the Marine Corps would be able to fashion a response. It would not be the same response as it was in 2001, obviously, but it would still be very capable.

A defense analyst recently summed up the ongoing connection between the United States and China to me as an attempt to reconcile individual military priorities against a backdrop of a growing trade relationship. Do you agree? What impact does your recent trip have on that tenor?
I explained to them, in the U.S., we have relationships with a number of other nations … Our politicians and bureaucrats will grouse and say things, but underneath all that is a fairly well-knitted military-to-military relationship that buoys that relationship and keeps it strong, regardless of the politicians fussing with each other. With China, they're somewhat the reverse of that. We've got strong business ties. We've got pretty good political ties. But the military is one step up and one step back. Things will happen that will get us pretty hot under the collar … So we sort of spit at each other. We ought to do better at that. We know how to do better. It would help if the military could do better at exchange and knitting relationships that would be the basis for the other relationships that nations have.

Through visits … Chinese Marines laying on a beach alongside other sweaty U.S. Marines waiting to go forward and take an objective in an exercise is better yet, because we are then lowering the curtain and we're getting to know each other.

The reason they're important is … if small nations make a mistake, you may never read about it. If big nations miscalculate because we're not communicating, it can have impact worldwide.

Understanding that it's got to be a two-way street. It can never be just us with an outreach to them. It's got to be both of us willing to meet in the middle. You can create enemies if you don't drop certain barriers and create certain levels of understanding that's going to help you both move forward together.

Would it be fair to say the real impact of this visit remains to be seen?
Probably, because a lot of things we talked about have not yet been offered or put into motion. I think, a year from now, we'll know how much the visit was the precursor for some of those things that hopefully might bring our militaries closer together.