Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta Heads to China

Leon Panetta will make his first visit to China as U.S. secretary of defense, September 18–20.

Q1: Why is the visit important?

A1: Secretary Panetta’s upcoming visit to China is an important step in the Obama administration’s effort to create and maintain a healthy, stable, reliable, and continuous military-to-military relationship with China. After spending one day in Japan, Panetta arrives in Beijing as the guest of Defense Minister Liang Guanglie, who was hosted by Secretary Panetta for a six-day trip to the United States this past May. Liang’s visit marked the first time in nine years that a Chinese defense minister traveled to the United States. Secretary Panetta’s trip to China this month provides an opportunity for Washington to expand cooperation where U.S. and Chinese interests coincide (for example, counter piracy, drug interdictions, opposition to proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, and humanitarian assistance) and to have frank conversations on issues where there are differences (for example North Korea, Iran, Syria, and maritime security). Panetta will undoubtedly seek to explain the U.S. strategy of rebalancing to the Asia-Pacific region, building on the explanations provided in recent months by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon.

Q2: What is the visit likely to accomplish?

A2: Concrete deliverables are unlikely; no formal agreements will be signed. Defense Minister Liang will be formally stepping down in the spring, so the visit is not significant in terms of relationship building. Nevertheless, it is important to conduct such visits regularly and routinely, to engage in dialogue on issues critical to both countries’ interests, signal areas of concern, and promote bilateral military cooperation in discrete areas. A visit by a U.S. secretary of defense also provides an opportunity for China to demonstrate a degree of military transparency. Beijing often arranges visits to military installations or demonstrations of weapons systems not previously opened to foreigners. For example, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited a Chinese submarine base on Zhoushan Island and was shown a Su-27, one of China’s most advanced operational fighter jets, during his four-day visit in July 2011.

Q3: What are the recent developments in U.S.-China military-to-military relations?

A3: The bilateral military relationship gradually returned to normal this year, after the Chinese suspended most bilateral military exchanges following the sale of a $5.85 billion weapons package to Taiwan in October 2011. Just prior to Gen. Liang Guanglie’s visit to the United States, the two nations held the second U.S.-China Strategic Security Dialogue, a combined civilian-military dialogue mechanism that focuses on sensitive issues that could lead to conflict, such as cyber and maritime security. Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, spent four days in China in late June, the first official visit by the top U.S. military officer in the Pacific in four years. In August, Lt. Gen. Cai Yingting, deputy chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff, toured several U.S. military bases and held talks with senior civilian and military officials in Washington. In early September, the U.S. Coast Guard and Chinese Maritime Safety Administration conducted the first-ever joint search-and-rescue operation off the coast of Hawaii. Talks are also underway to arrange antipiracy sea drills later this year.

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior fellow with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Christopher K. Johnson is a senior
adviser and holds the CSIS Freeman Chair in China Studies.

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© 2012 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Bonnie S. Glaser