WASHINGTON – Vice President Hu Jintao this week becomes the highest ranking Chinese visitor to the Pentagon in years.
But in the up-and-down world of U.S.-China military relations, his meeting with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld comes at a relatively low point.
"What's interesting is whether or not this invitation to Hu represents a change," said David M. Lampton of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. "It is quite notable that this Pentagon is inviting a Chinese vice president there — or indeed, any Chinese there."
The visit by Hu, widely expected to be China's next president, is seen largely as a chance for him and Bush administration officials to get to know each other. He arrives in Washington on Tuesday, with Vice President Dick Cheney as his host. In addition to Bush and Rumsfeld he also will meet with Secretary of State Colin Powell and congressional leaders.
The military-to-military connection is the least developed dimension to the U.S.-China relationship in the Bush administration, Lampton said.
"It's the notable laggard" compared to more robust finance, trade and political links, he said.
"There will be handshakes, there will be photo opportunities. There will not be any substantive breakthrough," the Heritage Foundation's John Tkacik said of the Rumsfeld meeting.
"Rumsfeld is going to be sizing up China's future leader and vice versa," agreed Ivan Eland of the Cato Institute.
For more than a year, there has been little contact between the U.S. military and China's People's Liberation Army. The two sides got off to a bad start last spring with the crash of a U.S. spy plane and President Bush's approval of a substantial arms package for Taiwan.
"If this lays the basis for the Pentagon re-engaging with China, that will be a very welcome development," Lampton said of Wednesday's planned meeting. "I don't expect that this meeting itself will lead to an announcement on resumption."
Rumsfeld thought Beijing for years had been getting more than it gave in the relationship, and he ordered all contacts be approved on a case-by-case basis — and that they be judged on whether they benefit the United States.
That slowed contacts to a trickle. There's been discussion about cooperation in the war on terrorism, some academic exchanges, meetings with think tanks and other such low-level engagement. Officials also have met to talk about how to prevent incidents like the spy plane collision, in which China enraged the Pentagon by detaining the plane's crew for 11 days.
"We went through a period where I didn't think we put enough thought into what we wanted to get out of the military relationship with China," said Kurt Campbell of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "But I think we've reversed course a little bit too much.
"You can't get by by ignoring a critical player inside China's decision-making apparatus," Campbell said.
Indeed, there is much to talk to each other about, No. 1 being the conflicting views on the U.S. commitment to strengthen military ties to Taiwan and defend it against any attack by China.
Though the Pentagon says China is years away from being able to take and hold Taiwan, in recent weeks Beijing has moved another batch of CSS-6 short-range ballistic missiles to its coast across from Taiwan. That brings its assembled missile force around Fuzhou to about 350, said a U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The United States also wants China to stop exporting weapons and technology to regimes that might use them against America. China opposes Bush's missile-defense proposals, particularly an extension of the defense shield to East Asia. And the list goes on.
"It is in the interests of the United States to interact with the PLA to address common interests, such as combating terrorism, peacekeeping operations, search and rescue, counterdrug, counterpiracy and humanitarian assistance," Adm. Dennis C. Blair, chief of the U.S. Pacific Command, said in recent testimony to Congress.
Blair said military-to-military contacts "are resuming slowly."