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China: In Sign Of Warming Ties, American Destroyer Visits Northern Fleet

A U.S. Navy destroyer this week visited the main port of China's Northern Fleet in a move aimed at normalizing military relations that were strained last year after a collision between a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. Observers say the visit by the USS Paul F. Foster is in keeping with a warming of relations between Washington and Beijing since the 11 September terrorist attacks. But they add that the relationship is inherently difficult.

Prague, 29 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- A symbolic move was made this week to resume normal military ties between Washington and Beijing with the visit of a U.S. destroyer to the headquarters of China's Northern Fleet.

The USS Paul F. Foster arrived at the port of Jiaozhou on 24 November for a five-day visit. Officers and soldiers from both sides met during the visit, the sixth by a U.S. warship since such military exchanges began in 1986.

Those exchanges were halted after a collision in April 2001 between a U.S. surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea. China detained the 24-member U.S. crew for some 11 days after the U.S. plane made an emergency landing on China's Hainan Island. The pilot of the Chinese fighter died in the incident.

Jean-Pierre Cabestan, the director of the French Center for Research on Contemporary China in Hong Kong, describes the backdrop.

He says military relations between China and the U.S. "have been at death's door since April 2001, right at the beginning of [George W. Bush's] presidency in the U.S. when the air collision put relations in a serious crisis. Since then, military relations have been frozen. We are now seeing the recovery of military relations in a symbolic fashion by the visit of a destroyer from the U.S. Navy in the port of Qingdao."

The formal commitment to restart military exchanges was made last month when Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited U.S. President George W. Bush's ranch in Texas. The visit was marked by a number of agreements, including a planned trip to China next month by U.S. Rear Admiral Thomas Fargo, commander in chief of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Cabestan notes the Chinese and U.S. presidents have met three times since the 11 September terrorist attacks, paving the way for a "gradual renormalization" of Sino-U.S. relations.

"On the American side, September 11 constituted a [turning point] which has progressively contributed to making relations less strained between Beijing and Washington. Washington has indeed far more immediate and important preoccupations, [such as the global campaign against terrorism,] than [to worry over the] strengthening of the People's Republic of China."

At the same time, China's stance toward the U.S. has remained flexible. China has maintained a basically neutral policy on Iraq and has restrained itself regarding U.S. policy in North Korea and Taiwan.

And a strong sign of China's desire to engage the U.S. came last week, when China's foreign minister said the country was seeking better relations with NATO. Cabestan says this represents a significant change in Chinese policy.

"It is a very interesting evolution because China has been, until very recently, critical of American alliances in Asia-Pacific, and of NATO's enlargement and expansion toward non-European regions bordering western China-Xinjiang in Central Asia. China is now changing its position toward NATO, because it cannot avoid this expansion and the establishment of closer relations between NATO and notably Russia. [China] prefers to engage NATO with dialogue instead of remaining totally isolated."

Since 11 September 2001 and the war in Afghanistan, ties between NATO and Central Asia have strengthened. Tajikistan this year became the last former Soviet republic to join NATO's Partnership for Peace.

At the same time, a NATO-Russia Council was created in May to coordinate procedures for handling emergencies and countering terrorism.

Francesco Sisci -- a Beijing-based columnist for the "Asia Times Online" website and the Italian newspaper "La Stampa" -- says China does not want to be isolated by NATO and its allies.

"[China's move toward NATO] is a groundbreaking event signifying China's will to establish better political as well as military dialogue with the United States. It's a kind of 'U-turn' after the [plane] incident last year. Somehow it means that China wants to improve relations with United States in a way [that makes them] better [than], or ahead of, the relationship between Russia and United States."

Sisci says improving military ties between China and the U.S. is important.

"At the moment, [military cooperation between the U.S. and China] is very limited. It is just establishing some ground rules to avoid possible pressure, or provocations, misunderstandings. But it is very important in the military field to establish these basic ground rules, which could evolve into mutual trust."

Cabestan says, however, that there are limits to how far military cooperation can go. He says the U.S. will maintain an arms embargo imposed on China in 1999.

He says more progress will be made in economic cooperation.

"The potential for cooperation will essentially remain economic. China needs American investments and technology. The Americans hope to increase exports to China in order to balance the enormous trade deficit -- to the detriment of the U.S. -- about $1 billion every year."

Phar Kim Beng, a senior research associate at the City University of Hong Kong, says he believes the improvement in Sino-U.S. relations is occurring at a "tactical level." Over the long-term, he says, tensions between them will remain.

He says China needs U.S. help in securing development aid.

"The United States controls most of the multilateral aid agencies such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and, to a large extent, even Japan's aid program. And China requires a constant infusion of development aid from all these major multilateral agencies in order to help its current growth."

As for leverage, Phar says that among other things, China has missile technology, which carries the implicit threat of supplying that to North Korea or countries in the Middle East.

"As a power that has the technology and the know-how to develop missiles, China can easily use that knowledge to strengthen its allies, such as North Korea or even other countries in Middle East. So the United States is trying to encourage China to remain a participant in the missile-control process."