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US Defense Chief Visits China at Crucial Juncture

U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates travels to China this weekend for talks that come at a crucial juncture in relations between the world’s established superpower and its fast rising new power.

In recent years, China has demonstrated that it is a regional superpower, and well on its way toward becoming a global one.

Even in the last several weeks, China has captured a Japanese fishing boat, unveiled a new fighter jet and warned the United States that sending warships into international waters near its shores would threaten its vital interests. In addition, the top American commander in the Pacific reported that China’s new anti-ship ballistic missile has reached "initial operational capability."

U.S. officials have also expressed concern about China’s focus on military systems designed to prevent an adversary from accessing a particular area, like the anti-ship weapon and also submarines and cyber warfare capabilities. And U.S. officials have criticized China for not condemning North Korea’s recent attacks on South Korea, and not doing more to force a change in North Korea’s behavior.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Schiffer put the situation starkly in a speech in Washington this month. "What we are witnessing in Asia today is a power transition on scale of any we have seen in the world’s recent history," he said.

Like other U.S. officials, Schiffer says the United States welcomes China’s rise, but wants China to respect international norms, particularly at sea, and to be a responsible leader in the international system that they say helped it achieve its economic turnaround.

The president of the Progressive Policy Institute, Will Marshall, says China’s recent behavior is cause for concern. "This doesn’t look like it’s consistent with Chinese officials’ claims that they want to see a "peaceful rise" of their country. It looks more menacing than that. And I think it’s time to make that point very clearly and directly. I think they’re pushing and probing here, and now it’s incumbent upon the United States to show that we are not going to be denied access to that part of the world," he said.

Marshall says recent statements by U.S. officials indicate they are taking a more realistic approach -- recognizing the potential dangers of China’s new, more aggressive posture as well as the potential for cooperation. Indeed, Secretary Gates’ budget for 2012, which includes cuts to many programs, has additional money to develop systems to counter China’s anti-access capabilities.

At the Heritage Foundation, China analyst Dean Cheng agrees that Gates should tell Chinese leaders their actions do not always seem to match their words, and that will have consequences. "We do not view them necessarily as an enemy, but Chinese assertiveness will be met by American firmness. If it should take a more antagonistic, aggressive pattern, then it will confront a lot of pushback, and its own interests would be best served by taking a less antagonistic approach," he said.

Cheng says there is a debate among Chinese leaders about how aggressive or conciliatory their foreign policy should be, and Gates should try to convince them that antagonizing the United States, and also their Asian neighbors, is not in their interest. Cheng and Marshall both note that China’s neighbors share U.S. concerns about its growing military capability and assertiveness, and the lack of clarity about its leaders’ intentions.

Asked about his trip during a news conference on Thursday, Secretary Gates accentuated the positive. "I am eager to explore where we can further develop and deepen a dialogue on a number of issues of mutual concern and where we have - and where we both have interests - North Korea is an obvious example, but Iran, a number of other areas," he said.

Gates said he also wants to discuss expanding military exchanges, exercises and operations related to such subjects as fighting piracy and providing disaster relief.

This visit comes after an eight-month freeze in U.S.-China defense relations, imposed by China last year to protest the latest U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. U.S. officials have repeatedly called for a more consistent relationship, saying such freezes add to tension and the potential for misunderstanding and conflict. Again, Michael Schiffer. "We don’t view the military-to-military relationship as separate from the overall bilateral relationship. When it is split off and allowed to lag, it can threaten to drag down the entire bilateral relationship with it," he said.

At talks in Washington last month, Chinese officials reportedly agreed on the need for a consistent relationship, but it was not clear whether they were committing to ending the freezes or calling on the United States to stop doing things they do not like. That will be another subject for Secretary Gates’ talks in Beijing.

Those talks will come just a week after China’s foreign minister visited Washington, and a week before China’s President, Hu Jintao, arrives for broader talks with President Barack Obama. Analysts say the series of meetings will set the tone and direction of one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships for years to come.