The Chinese minister of defense, General Liang Guanglie, is currently visiting the United States, and as usual, he is getting the red carpet rolled out for him. He is meeting Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and visiting a number of U.S. military installations, including Southern Command and Fort Benning. General Liang has already made clear that Secretary Panetta is welcome to visit China in the second half of this year.
On these visits, the Chinese typically get to see American forces and equipment, although usually little different from what is on display at air shows, such as the Joint Service Open House at Andrews Air Force Base. Similarly, in any reciprocal visit, the Chinese will display for Secretary Panetta a group of carefully selected personnel undergoing heavily rehearsed activities, coupled with some peeks at China’s best equipment. Admiral Mike Mullen got to sit in the cockpit of a Chinese Su-27, something even Chinese journalists have not been allowed to do.
All of this is to the good, insofar as it actually reduces mutual tension and improves understanding. But does it? Neither the American nor Chinese side actually has much in the way of substantive discussions. For example, the PRC has consistently resisted any kind of discussion of “rules of the road” for naval vessels, insisting that the U.S. stop conducting military operations in its 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ). The United States consistently refuses, in accordance with its longstanding defense of freedom of navigation.
While such meetings provide an opportunity to keep channels of communications open, thus far, there appear to be few messages heading in either direction.
What is far more interesting is General Liang’s position. Liang is the Minister of Defense, but that position is no longer equated with a vice chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (CMC). The two military vice chairmen, General Guo Boxiong and Xu Caihou, are therefore arguably more important than General Liang—and closer to being counterparts of Secretary Panetta and General Martin Dempsey (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff).
Will Secretary Panetta, or General Dempsey, have an opportunity to meet their true counterparts in any visit to the PRC?