Spiraling Toward Northeast Asia

Microsteps,” “snub” and “tepid endorsement” are how newspapers are describing the results thus far of Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s visit to China. After proposing to restore regular high-level talks between U.S. and Chinese military officials (scuttled after last January’s American aid package to Taiwan), Gates reportedly received the old non-answer: “we’ll look into it.” The Washington Post’s John Pomfret says the “lukewarm reaction” might be a sign that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) “was strong-armed by China’s political leadership into welcoming Gates.” This after the PLA “rebuffed” the defense secretary last June when he was told to stay home. While the Chinese have tried to downplay their military buildup—most recently symbolized by the unveiling of a stealth aircraft—the New York Times’s Elisabeth Bumiller notes the “Chinese military’s growing confidence in its dealing with the United States.” Reflecting the political-military divide in the PRC’s leadership, the Wall Street Journal expects Gates’s meeting with President Hu Jintao “to be visibly warmer” than his news conference with defense chief Gen. Liang Ganglie.

Richard Weitz says China’s refusal to commit to any strategically oriented talks is largely because Beijing welcomed Gates in order to smooth things over ahead of President Hu’s state visit to Washington, not because they’re interested in hammering out any long-term deals. And, Weitz claims, China is hedging because America is hedging because China is hedging because . . . you get the point. That’s a spiral that Spencer Ackerman sees blooming into “an arms race,” something Secretary Gates seemed eager “to squash . . . before it gets going in earnest.” Beijing’s response makes Brahma Chellaney fear the Chinese “tiger” that he says “discarded Deng Xiaoping's dictum ‘tao guang yang hui’ (conceal ambitions and hide claws).”

While Gates is in Beijing, U.S. allies South Korea and Japan have been busy getting closer with high-level defense talks of their own. Seoul and Tokyo are hoping to cobble together their first-ever “joint military agreement.” Perhaps only fear of China’s growing clout (and worries over North Korea’s stability and nuclear program) can conquer “intense bitterness” South Koreans feel “over the 35-year Japanese occupation of Korea that ended in 1945.” Matt Yglesias worries about Americans becoming “offshore sponsors of an anti-Chinese military alliance” because it might become “self-fulfilling.” (There’s that spiral again. Speaking of which, North Korea has asked the South to restart talks on “economic ties.” It could be an attempt by Pyongyang to break the cycle of threats the kinsman have been trading of late—or, as Seoul said upon rejecting the offer, just another “ploy by the economically destitute North to win aid.”)