China's military seems to have a new attitude: lots of chutzpah

Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 7, 2011; 7:15 PM

When Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates arrives in China on Sunday, he will discover a Chinese military that has significantly changed in the three and a half years since he last visited Beijing.

It's not so much that the People's Liberation Army has achieved stunning successes since Gates met with its officers in 2007 - although, despite significant problems, the military's modernization has continued apace.

More than anything, the PLA has taken on a different tone. Emboldened by the notion that China's rise is unstoppable, its military has shed its traditional secrecy to become a brash, even boisterous interest group that openly advocates for policies, brandishes its new equipment and makes other claims like never before.

"Over the years, the Chinese military doctrine was 'hide and bide' - hide your resources and bide your time," Vice Adm. David J. "Jack" Dorsett, director of naval intelligence, told reporters earlier this week. "They now appear to have shifted into an era where they're willing to show their resources and capabilities."

But in other ways Gates could find the PLA very much like he left it - unsure of whether it wants a better relationship with the United States. That would put Washington in the uncomfortable position of being a not-so-welcome suitor of China's men in green.

Despite years of American pleas that closer military coordination is needed to avoid the miscalculations that could lead to war, senior Chinese officers have said military ties with Washington will never be normal unless, among other steps, the United States stops selling weapons to Taiwan and halts its surveillance activities near China's coast.

"The one big question is why are the talks happening now?" asked David Finkelstein, a former official with the Defense Intelligence Agency and now the director of the China program at the think-tank CNA.

Finkelstein speculated that perhaps the PLA has been forced to make nice ahead of a Jan. 18 state visit by President Hu Jintao to Washington. Or, he said, "perhaps even the PLA now realizes that no relations with the U.S. military is a bad thing."

Regardless, he said, at a time when China's military increasingly rubs up against its American counterpart, "just talking is important enough."

The PLA suspended ties with the United States last January when the Obama administration announced a $6.4 billion arms package for Taiwan; it rejected Gates's attempt to visit China last June.

But over the summer, ties were resuscitated. And in December, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michèle Flournoy held talks in Washington with Gen. Ma Xiaotian, deputy chief of the PLA's general staff.

Flournoy told reporters that she found those talks "enlightening" because Ma engaged in some discussion and did not read to her from talking points like many Chinese generals do. She said the Chinese were given briefings on U.S. nuclear, space and ballistic missile defense policies "that we gave our closest allies" - part of a broader U.S. strategy of trying to win over the PLA by making the first move.

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