As Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel returns from his visit to China, reporting on the visit has been mixed. Optimists have tended to focus on the visit to China’s new aircraft carrier as an example of a new openness on the part of Beijing. And it is important to recognize when the regime is more open.
In this regard, it would seem that visits by senior U.S. defense secretaries have become moments for China to display new weapons and (especially, it seems) new aircraft. Secretary Robert Gates’s visit saw the Chinese display the J-20 stealth fighter; Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit was preceded by the revelation of the J-31; the Chinese displayed their new carrier-based fighter on the eve of Secretary Hagel’s arrival. One cannot help but wonder whether more turnover among American Secretaries of Defense would lead to more Chinese aircraft revelations.
Of greater concern, however, should be the revelation that China really does think of the South China Sea as a “core interest.” In the joint press conference with Hagel, Chinese defense minister General Chang Wanquan noted that China would “not negotiate” and “not compromise” over territorial core interests, including the South China Sea.
This should put an end to the debate that began in 2010 about whether the Chinese actually think of the area as a “core interest,” as Administration officials Jeff Bader and James Steinberg denied having heard the Chinese use such terms (but former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton later quoted State Councilor Dai Bingguo). The categorical nature of General Chang’s comments, moreover, would seem to apply to not only the South China Sea but also to the Senkakus dispute with Japan and Ieodo/Socotra Rock with South Korea.
In the face of this hard-line Chinese position, the Administration’s persistence in proffering unilateral concessions to Beijing—not to mention its near-obsequious requests for more contacts and interactions with the Chinese military—suggests a new level of fecklessness. The decision to offer China briefings on U.S. cyber strategy and doctrine, on a level that the Administration shows no intention of duplicating to the American people, raises questions about whether it is China or America that is more dangerous in the eyes of some decision makers. Beijing’s response, meanwhile—insisting that it engages in no official cyber activities at all—suggests that Chinese decision makers have pocketed that free information with no hint of a quid pro quo.