Defense Secretary Robert Gates expressed optimism about our military relations with Beijing at the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, the preeminent security conference in Asia. American efforts could be complimentary to, not competitive with, those of China, he said at the Singapore conclave. Gates listed the areas where China and America share security interests, such as terrorism, proliferation, and energy security. But he left one major issue off the list—the construction of large warships.
This is particularly disturbing in light of the remarks made by Admiral Timothy Keating in Beijing last month. Keating, the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific, said he found his host country’s ambition to build an aircraft carrier “understandable.” After talks with China’s navy chief, Admiral Wu Shengli, Keating offered to help the Chinese build a carrier “to the degree that they seek and the degree that we’re capable.”
Will the Chinese seek to build a carrier? Without a doubt. They have been contemplating the prospect for decades, going so far as to purchase the hulks of one Australian and three Soviet carriers for purposes of reverse-engineering. Recently, Chinese military representatives have been touring international air shows to find strike planes that can be launched at sea. And the U.S. is, of course, capable of helping them build carriers. The only thing that prevents Keating from handing over the plans to the Nimitz is American legislation: a Tiananmen-era ban on military exports to China, as well as a strict limit, enacted later, on military exchanges.
But why would the U.S. Navy offer to help the Chinese build a carrier? Keating put it very simply: the construction of warships is “not an area where we would want any tension to arise unnecessarily.” The prevailing theory at the highest levels of the Navy, apparently, is that America can avoid problems in the future by placating the Chinese today.
In the course of these discussions, Keating made no mention of the fact that the U.S. Navy has spent much of this decade ignoring a pattern of hostile Chinese conduct. In 2001, the United States reacted to China’s reckless downing of an EP-3 reconnaissance plane and its unjustifiable detention of the crew by apologizing to China—but even that did not satisfy Beijing. In 2002, a Chinese vessel attempted to ram the unarmed USNS Bowditch in international waters. Last October, a Chinese sub surfaced in the middle of the Kitty Hawk carrier group—an unambiguously threatening gesture. Keating, with his latest offers of assistance to Beijing, was merely continuing a failed policy of engagement—and, in doing so, was doubtless taking his cue from those higher up the chain of command.
“As we gain experience in dealing with each other,” Gates said of China in his Singapore speech, “relationships can be forged that will build trust over time.” Unfortunately, our defense secretary has got it all wrong. Our experience in dealing with China over the past decade indicates we should be forging a relationship built on less trust—and on a greater awareness of unavoidable military competition.