BEIJING - The United States is spending too much on its military in light of its recent economic troubles, China's top general said Monday while playing down his country's own military capabilities.
The chief of the General Staff of the People's Liberation Army, Chen Bingde, told reporters he thought the U.S. should cut back on defense spending for the sake of its taxpayers. He was speaking during a joint news conference in which he traded barbs with visiting U.S. counterpart Adm. Mike Mullen.
"I know the U.S. is still recovering from the financial crisis," Chen said. "Under such circumstances, it is still spending a lot of money on its military and isn't that placing too much pressure on the taxpayers?
"If the U.S. could reduce its military spending a bit and spend more on improving the livelihood of the American people ... wouldn't that be a better scenario?" he said.
The visit by Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is the first of its kind in four years. Mullen and Chen are trying to upgrade military-to-military ties after setbacks over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, cyberattacks traced to China and concern about Beijing's military plans.
Chen made a similar trip to the U.S. in May as part of efforts to improve often frosty relations between the militaries, especially as the economies of the countries become more codependent.
The world's two biggest economies frequently clash over financial issues, such as Beijing's resistance to exchange rate reforms and the ballooning U.S. trade deficit with China. Such issues are not usually at the forefront of military talks, though both sides chide each other for their defense spending.
China's military budget of $95 billion this year is the world's second-highest after Washington's planned $650 billion in defense spending.
Mullen acknowledged tough challenges to improving their military ties and called for more communication as well as "clearer and more pragmatic expectations."
"We need to continue to work toward an understanding as these differences continue to be out there," Mullen said. "That's why it's so important that we have a robust military-to-military relationship."
Chen said China is more than two decades behind the U.S. in terms of military technology and Beijing needs to upgrade by adding new hardware such as aircraft carriers.
"China is a big country, and we have quite a number of ships, but these are only small ships and this is not commensurate with the status of a country like China," he said. "Of course I hope that in future we will have aircraft carriers."
Chen said a former Soviet-era aircraft carrier that China bought from Ukraine in 1998 was "a valuable thing" for China and it was being used for research and development purposes.
The still-unnamed ship was bought as an empty shell without engines, weapons systems, or other crucial equipment and isn't believed to have traveled before under its own propulsion. Years of sea trials and flight training are needed before it will be fully operational.
Although no date has been set, once launched, it is expected to primarily be a training vessel for the navy and for naval pilots, while China moves swiftly to build its own carriers.
During their talks earlier Monday, Chen said he and Mullen also discussed China's development of a new missile system, the Dong Fang 21D. Analysts have said the "carrier killer" missile might threaten U.S. warships and alter the regional balance of power.
Chen told reporters the DF 21D system was "not operational yet," and was intended for defenses purposes only.
China's push to grow homegrown aircraft carrier and missile technology have raised the stakes for Washington, long the pre-eminent naval power in Asia, and jangled the already edgy nerves of China's neighbors, perceiving from Beijing more assertive enforcement of claims to disputed territories.
Over the past year, China has seen a flare-up in territorial spats with Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam and seen its relations strained with South Korea all of which have turned to Washington for support.
Chen criticized the U.S. for its recent military exercises with the Philippines and Vietnam, saying they should have been put off due to the heightened regional tensions. Mullen defended the operations as routine.
"The timing of those joint exercises was inappropriate," Chen said. "At this particular time, when China and the related claimants have some difficulties, have some problems with each other, the U.S. decides to hold such large-scale joint exercises ... at the very least this was bad timing."
Mullen countered that the exercises had been planned well in advance and that he wouldn't describe them as "large-scale," though he was open to a debate with Chen on the matter.
The host, Chen, took the last word, saying that even if the exercises were pre-planned, they could have been rescheduled.