U.S. Seeks More Transparency from China on Defense Issues

By Jacquelyn S. Porth
USINFO Staff Writer

Washington – The United States is monitoring closely China’s military modernization efforts while also pushing Beijing to be more transparent about its intentions and participate more fully in a dialogue to head off the risk of miscalculation, a senior U.S. defense official says.

Deputy Under Secretary of Defense Richard Lawless told the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission February 1 that China’s military transformation is expanding beyond the traditional air, land and sea dimensions “to now include space and cyberspace.”  With China’s military transformation accelerating annually, he said, it is not certain whether the end result will be peaceful or not.

Lawless, who handles Asian and Pacific policy at the Pentagon, pointed to the destabilizing nature of China’s January 11 successful test of a direct ascent anti-satellite (ASAT) system which he said “poses dangers to human space flight and puts at risk the assets of all space-faring nations.”  He said the United States was not warned of China’s plan to use what he characterized as “an offensive weapon” to shoot down one of its old weather satellites.  (See related article.)

State Department official John Norris told the commission February 2 that the Chinese test is not an issue exclusive to U.S.-Chinese relations, but one that affects the entire international community.  Speaking in his capacity as acting deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, he said many nations have approached China diplomatically and spoken publicly about the January test.  “China needs to explain [it] not just to us, but to the international community,” he said, because the debris from the incident could pose a risk to other nations’ satellites and civilian spacecraft.

Norris said the United States is waiting for answers from Chinese officials about how its action squares with China’s expressed desire for peaceful uses of space.  An existing agreement on civilian space cooperation facilitated a past exchange of visits by space administrators of both nations.  In the wake of the test and unanswered diplomatic questions about Chinese intentions, he said in remarks delivered on behalf of another U.S. official, “we’re evaluating what [further] we should do in the civil space area.” 


Thomas Ehrhard, a senior analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a private nonprofit research group, told the commission that China may carry out more destabilizing actions in the future.  He described the Chinese test as a conscious and a provocative action calculated for international consumption but said it raises the prospect of military miscalculation.

Besides the anti-satellite test, a Chinese Song-class diesel submarine came close to an American aircraft carrier in international waters in the Pacific in October 2006, and a Chinese fighter aircraft bumped a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft in 2001, forcing an emergency landing for the U.S. aircraft and causing the death of the Chinese pilot.

Lawless said he expects movement within months on a long-standing plan to establish a defense telephone link between U.S. and Chinese leaders to be used in a crisis, as well as the initiation of a new strategic dialogue on nuclear policy, doctrine and strategy.

He said the head of China’s Strategic Rocket Forces has had an open invitation for 18 months to visit the U.S. Strategic Command.  “The fact that the ASAT test took place in the absence of a strong dialogue is all the more concerning because we just simply are not being allowed to develop the quality of discussion that we need to have with them in these critical areas, especially … where miscalculation is possible.”

The commission’s chair, Carolyn Bartholomew, said China’s test “caused even some of the Chinese government’s most ardent fans to question how much we really know about the Chinese government’s intentions and … capabilities.”

Besides soliciting input from the U.S. government, the commission also heard presentations by academics, union officials and economic experts on the state of U.S.-Chinese relations.

Edward Friedman, a political science professor from the University of Wisconsin, said China’s government “is controlled by a ruling group that chooses to challenge the U.S. all around the globe, from Venezuela and Cuba, to the Sudan and Zimbabwe, to Uzbekistan and Burma.”

Phillip Saunders of the National Defense University urged more congressional and public debate on China.  “As the Chinese policy process becomes more pluralistic there is also a greater need to engage Chinese society and institutions such as the National People’s Congress, directly,” he added.

For more information, see The United States and China.

The full texts of most statements at the meetings are available on the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission Web site.