WASHINGTON – In an effort to strengthen relations between the reigning Pacific military power and the rising one, Defense Secretary Robert Gates' trip to China next week is meant to coax the secretive Chinese military brass into a little show and tell.
During Gates' visit to Beijing, coming a week before Chinese President Hu Jintao's state visit to Washington, the defense chief plans to make the case for regular face-to-face discussions among U.S. and Chinese military leaders that are routine for presidents and diplomats.
Gates will see Hu and senior Chinese military leaders after a particularly rocky year in which China expanded its military reach and firepower, quarreled with U.S. allies over Pacific territory and broke off the few flimsy military ties it had allowed with the United States.
Limited relations between the two militaries were restored late last year. On the eve of Gates' trip, an aide said, the defense secretary saw the military relationship on the mend.
"He goes into it encouraged, optimistic, hopeful," Pentagon press secretary Geoff Morrell said Friday, noting that Gates will tour a major Chinese nuclear facility and meet with top uniformed leaders.
Still, there are few signs that China wants the kind of broad engagement Gates has argued would help avert risky misunderstandings and miscalculations as China extends its military reach.
"We've raised a lot of these issues before. We've raised them in Beijing, we've raised them in Washington. We will raise them again and we certainly hope we make additional progress and sustainable progress," Morrell said.
The United States and China are sometimes global competitors for markets, influence and increasingly for military bragging rights.
But they are also diplomatic partners, and Gates' visit comes as the Obama administration is leaning hard on China to tighten the leash on its erratic ally North Korea, which in recent months has come close to open conflict with South Korea. Gates is also visiting South Korea for brief talks about averting war with the North, and Japan, which is alarmed by Chinese military moves.
The China invitation is a coup for Gates, who invited a Chinese counterpart for similar talks and a visit to the U.S. nuclear weapons headquarters in 2009. A reciprocal invitation was expected in 2010, but China withheld it in protest of a planned $6.4 billion arms sale to China's rival, Taiwan.
The United States and China have cooperated on sanctions on Iran over its nuclear program, and both nations are discussing working side by side to deter piracy and respond to Asian natural disasters.
But the two militaries are engaged in a test of wills in the Pacific, as China begins to challenge the century-old assumption that the United States is the pre-eminent military power there.
China has made significant gains toward fielding a missile system designed to sink a moving aircraft carrier from nearly 2,000 miles away, the top U.S. commander in the Pacific said Thursday. The so-called "carrier-killer" missile and a new showpiece stealth fighter jet may not be a match for U.S. systems, but represent rapid advances for China's homegrown technology and defense manufacturing.
While it is modernizing, China's military still lags far behind the United States. U.S. officials say they are not concerned about the missile or other advances, but the U.S. Navy is the most obvious target.
Still, U.S. officials say it is vital that the two militaries strengthen their limited lines of communication. Washington argues that with better equipment comes greater risk that a misunderstanding becomes deadly or that a minor tiff could spiral beyond control.
China is irritated by the U.S. support for Taiwan, which Beijing regards as a breakaway province, and the U.S. military presence in its region. The U.S. has permanent military bases on China's doorstep, and the U.S. Navy regularly patrols Pacific waters that China claims as restricted. The U.S. also bans the export of some technology and hardware to China and subjects China to an annual, public accounting of Chinese military power that is often highly critical.
Beijing continues to resist the administration's attempts to broaden the narrow and fragile military relationship, the Pentagon concluded in that China report last year.
"Extreme secrecy is increasingly difficult to reconcile with China's role in the integrated global economy, which depends on transparency," the report said.
Secrecy helps China mask the yawning gap between U.S. and Chinese military abilities and hardware, said Drew Thompson, an analyst of China's military at the Nixon Center in Washington.
"They know a deeper relationship with the U.S. eventually leads to cooperation on a level that will reveal Chinese capabilities to a greater degree," Thompson said.