WASHINGTON - Of the many planned stops on a U.S. tour this week by a top-level Chinese military delegation, one the iconic Grand Canyon is an especially apt metaphor for the wide divide between Washington and Beijing over explosive issues like U.S. support for Taiwan.
Pentagon officials hope the visit, which begins Monday in Washington, will mark a fresh beginning for a prickly, start-and-stop relationship between the two military behemoths. The Chinese delegation is led by Gen. Chen Bingde, the counterpart to the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen. It is the first visit of its kind in seven years.
The U.S.-China relationship is one of the most important in the world, given traditional U.S. security and economic interests in the Asia-Pacific region and the rapid modernization of a Chinese military viewed with increasing suspicion by U.S. allies in the region.
China has been investing heavily in items that enable it to project power well beyond its shores; it is expected, for example, to complete construction of its first aircraft carrier this year. And it is focused on capabilities such as cyber warfare and missiles that could be used to sink or paralyze American carriers that could deny U.S. access to Asian theaters of war.
For its part, the U.S. is developing aircraft carrier-based drones likely to be deployed in Asia to try to counter China's military rise.
This week's visit was delayed due to Chinese anger over the Obama administration's approval in January 2010 of a $6.4 billion weapons sale to Taiwan, the self-governing island that China claims as its own territory and that the U.S. is committed to arming.
Military-to-military relations were frozen after the arms sale was announced. A thaw began with Defense Secretary Robert Gates' visit to Beijing last January, followed by a productive visit to Washington shortly afterward by President Hu Jintao.
Taiwan, however, remains a major problem. Just last week, Taiwan's President Ma Ying-jeou called on Washington to grant Taiwan's request to purchase U.S. F-16 fighter jets and diesel-powered submarines arms that China insists Taiwan does not need.
Gates issued a reminder of his concerns about China when he was asked by an enlisted Marine last week at Camp Lejeune about looming security threats. After citing terrorism, Iran and North Korea he mentioned "China's military program."
For years, Washington has searched for ways to build a relationship with Beijing that is less vulnerable to sudden disruptions and the danger of serious miscalculations. But there has been a persistent pattern of breakdowns since the Chinese crackdown on democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Relations were again severed when China refused to believe that the 1999 bombing of its embassy in Belgrade was accidental, and the U.S. cut off relations in April 2001 when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. reconnaissance plane and the American crew was held on China's Hainan Island for nearly two weeks.
Two senior U.S. defense officials who previewed this week's visit before Chen's group arrived Sunday stressed that no breakthroughs on major issues are expected. The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity in order to discuss internal planning, set a low bar for the visit's success: Simply getting senior officers together and giving the Chinese a look around the U.S. military.
In the background lies the sensitive issue of China's close relations with Pakistan and U.S. concerns that the Pakistanis might give the Chinese access to the remnants of a U.S. stealth helicopter that crash-landed during the May 2 raid on Osama bin Laden's compound. The chopper's tail section, including what appeared to be components of stealth technology, was left behind.
The U.S. defense officials said Mullen will propose regularizing contact between top U.S. and Chinese military leaders, including phone conversations. Mullen also expects Chen to offer to host a reciprocal visit, either by Mullen or his successor. Mullen's term ends Sept. 30.
A core tension in the U.S.-China military relationship is U.S. frustration over China's unwillingness to reveal more about its military capability, its budget and its strategy. When senior Pentagon officials visit China they get a relatively superficial look at military capabilities and some have questioned whether U.S. openness toward the Chinese makes strategic sense.
Private analyst Kenneth Allen, however, argues that over time the U.S. has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about China's military.
"We tend to look at what happened on visit X or visit Y who got to see what," Allen, senior research analyst at Defense Group Inc.'s Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis, said in a telephone interview. The value of reciprocal visits should instead be judged by what has happened over the past three decades, he said.
"Over those 30 years we have seen a lot" of the Chinese military establishment, Allen said.
Chen's delegation is to visit the key Navy city of Norfolk, Va., which is home to the Navy's 2nd Fleet; the Army's Fort Stewart, Ga., where the Chinese will watch a live-fire exercise; the Army's state-of-the-art National Training Center in California's Mohave Desert and Nellis Air Force Base, Nev., where the Air Force trains its combat aviators.
Before leaving the Southwest, the Chinese will visit the Grand Canyon one of several cultural stops. They also are to see George Washington's home at Mount Vernon, Va., and the People's Liberation Army band is scheduled to play a concert with the U.S. Army Band at the Kennedy Center in Washington on Monday evening the PLA band's first U.S. performance.