American policymakers watch China’s rapidly growing military with deep apprehension, openly worrying that Beijing is developing stealth warplanes and other sophisticated weapons as a way of one day challenging U.S. dominance in the Pacific.
But Gen. Chen Bingde, the head of China’s armed forces, came to Washington this week on a charm offensive designed to persuade Washington that its fears are misplaced.
In a speech on Wednesday at the National Defense University, Chen said that China’s military is decades behind the U.S. military and assured his audience that Beijing wanted to forge closer ties, not to engage in the kind of political or military jockeying that could harm both countries.
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“The world has no need to worry, let alone fear, China’s growth,” Chen said, speaking through an interpreter. “China never intends to challenge the U.S.”
Chen, the chief of the general staff of the People's Liberation Army (equivalent to the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), is the highest-ranking Chinese military officer to visit the U.S. in seven years. Sino-American relations deteriorated sharply last year when the Obama administration signed off on the sale of $6.4 billion of military equipment to Taiwan, which Beijing sees as a renegade Chinese province. In the aftermath of the arms deal, China cut off most of its military-to-military contacts with the United States and scrapped an array of official visits and officer-exchange programs.
Both Washington and Beijing have since tried to repair the damage, and Chen’s visit, which will feature meetings with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other top civilian and military officials, appears to represent an olive branch of sorts to the United States.
But in his generally conciliatory remarks, Chen didn’t try to paper over the status of Taiwan, which the U.S. has promised to defend from any Chinese attempt to conquer the island nation.
“Candidly speaking, it is one of the main sources of friction,” he said, describing Taiwan as one of China’s “core interests.”
The general tried to equate Beijing’s insistence on one day reclaiming Taiwan with the U.S. Civil War to prevent southern states from seceding. The PowerPoint presentation that ran as Chen spoke showed a picture of President Lincoln and quoted the former president as saying “the Union is unbroken.”
Chen didn’t address either of the high-tech weapons systems that have most alarmed senior U.S. national security officials: the J-20 stealth fighter that China ostentatiously tested when Gates visited the country in January and the advanced anti-ship missile that top U.S. Navy commanders describe as an “aircraft carrier killer.”
Instead, Chen focused on what he saw as his own military’s many weaknesses and shortcomings. He told the crowd that there was at least a 20-year gap between the Chinese and Western militaries, particularly when it came to the strengths of their respective navies.
“We are not that strong yet,” he said. “And to be honest, I feel very sad after visiting [the United States] because I feel and I know how poor our equipments are and how underdeveloped our forces are.”
Chen and other top Chinese officials have an obvious incentive to play down their military strength so the United States doesn’t step up its own efforts to design new weapons systems specifically designed to counter specific Chinese armaments.
The two nations continue to be deeply divided on a host of key issues. Diplomatically, Beijing routinely blocks American-backed initiatives at the United Nations, most recently helping to stymie a Security Council resolution condemning the Syrian government for its brutal crackdown on pro-democracy protesters. And economically, China refuses to allow its yuan to float against the dollar, which has helped fuel the enormous trade deficit between the countries.
Chen ended his remarks on a light note, joking that Washington—which has effectively borrowed trillions of dollars from China—should lend some of the money back so China could modernize its military.
“As chief of the general staff, you don’t know how I want to have better development in equipment etcetera, but that comes to the issue of money,” he said. “If you can lend us some money, that would be great.”
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