By NBC News’ Ed Flanagan
BEIJING – “We notice that the United States engaged in the joint military exercises with countries like Vietnam and the Philippines. We Chinese people treat this as interference in China’s relationship with neighboring countries and I think this is not conducive to security and stability in Asia, so I’m wondering how you would comment on this?”
And with that opening gauntlet, so began a 45-minute grilling of America’s top military officer, U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen.
Mullen, who is leading a 39-member* delegation on a four-day tour of China, stopped at Beijing’s Renmin University Sunday to talk with 150 students hand-picked by college officials.
The stakes were high for the admiral, as his visit represents the first high-level military visit to China by a U.S. military official since Secretary of Defense Robert Gates came in January. The trip follows what has been considered a successful visit in May to the United States by Admiral Mullen’s Chinese counterpart in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Chief of the General Staff Chen Bingde.
The students’ questions – likely screened in advance of the Q&A – were a veritable roll call of recent and long-standing grievances the Chinese have had with the United States: continued arms sales to Taiwan, presumed meddling in the South China Sea, China’s military development and the ongoing U.S. embargo on military weapons sales to the mainland, cyber warfare and the negative stance some U.S. politicians have taken toward China.
It was perhaps no surprise then when it came out that those issues were the primary topics of discussion in high-level talks between Adm. Mullen and Chen Bingde on Monday.
For his part, Mullen gamely walked a fine line with the students. Facing the unenviable task of reaffirming American engagement in the region at a time when China is consolidating its own power here, he quickly followed up statements declaring America’s commitment to Asia with others that trumpeted China’s rise to the world stage.
“Now, more than ever, the U.S. is a Pacific nation. It is clear that our military interests and economic well-being are tied to Asia,” said Mullen before later adding, “The U.S. wants a positive, cooperative and comprehensive relationship with China.”
Mullen continued by saying, “China today is a different country than it was 10 years ago, and it certainly will continue to change over the next 10 years… It is no longer a rising power. It has, in fact, arrived as a world power."
Mullen was cordial and respectful throughout his talk, but he did not back down from what have become almost regular calls by American defense officials for greater transparency within the People’s Liberation Army.
"With greater military power must come greater responsibility, greater cooperation, and just as important, greater transparency," Mullen said before warning, "without these things, the expansion of military power in your region, rather than making it more secure and stable, could have the opposite effect."
Officially, China’s defense budget for 2011 is said to be around $93 billion, a 12.7 percent increase over 2010. Many military expects though believe that this number is vastly underreported.
Change in tone noticeable
If the questions themselves were not unexpected, the tone with which the questions were asked were noticeably more direct than in previous similar town hall style meetings.
In 2009 when President Barack Obama held a town hall Q&A with students in Shanghai, a question on American weapons sales to Taiwan was posed to Mr. Obama:
“I come from Taiwan. Now I am doing business on the mainland. And due to improved cross-straits relations in recent years, my business in China is doing quite well. So when I heard the news that some people in America would like to propose – continue selling arms and weapons to Taiwan, I begin to get pretty worried. I worry that this may make our cross-straits relations suffer. So I would like to know if, Mr. President, are you supportive of improved cross-straits relations? And although this question is from a businessman, actually, it's a question of keen concern to all of us young Chinese students, so we'd really like to know your position on this question. Thank you.”
Compare that phrasing to a similar question posed by a foreign language student Sunday to Mullen:
“As we know, the United States keeps selling advanced weapons to Taiwan and I think this goes against the regional stability and security you were talking about. As we have noticed, some U.S. Congressmen have questioned the legitimacy of arms sales to Taiwan, so my question is when will the United States stop selling advanced weapons to Taiwan?”
The directness of the question drew applause and some giggles from the assembled students. Mullen gave a similar response to the one Obama gave in 2009: he reaffirmed the United States’ continued support of the one-China policy, but said that arms sales to Taiwan are permitted by U.S. law.
Mullen’s response in particular to charges that American congressmen have questioned the need for Taiwan arms sales appeared to resonate with students as well when he noted, “there are 535 members of my congress and often times there are that many views on a variety of subjects.”
Responsible regional partners
Throughout his trip to China so far, Mullen’s mantra has been that it is time for a major power like China to be a responsible partner in regional issues. In particular, the maintaining of free waterways for commerce, greater transparency within the People’s Liberation Army and the peaceful mediation of territorial issues like the Spratly Islands – a 1.3-million-square-mile patch of the Pacific Ocean claimed by China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan – are clear sources of American concern.
However, these calls by the United States have been received with a perception that the U.S. may be “blaming” China for its role in recent diplomatic and military flare ups in the region. Furthermore, there is seeming frustration here that the United States appears intent on framing China’s new regional responsibilities rather than allowing China to define them for itself.
Once again, it would appear that the United States and China are at loggerheads on an issue with no immediate resolution in sight. Mullen’s visit gives hope though that while differences and suspicions remain, the two parties are at least willing again to meet and talk it out.
*Correction: This post incorrectly stated that Admiral Mullen's China delegation consisted of 39 members. The correct number was 22.