How China’s Generals Already Gamed Xi’s Meeting With Obama

On his way to Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, in Seattle.

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

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On his way to Washington, Chinese President Xi Jinping speaks Tuesday, Sept. 22, 2015, in Seattle.

China’s military hard-liners had a wish-list for today’s summit in Washington. Here’s what they wanted.

If you look to the photo-ops of Chinese President Xi and Barack Obama, you won’t see any generals by Xi’s side. But China’s military leaders played a major role in drafting the script President Xi is following as he visits Washington, D.C. this week.

A few weeks ago in Beijing, many of the officers and what I call “scholar generals” predicted with pride what Xi would do during the summit—and what he had agreed not to do—predictions that they shared with me personally. The People’s Liberation Army has a little-known foreign policy team known as the General Political Department that assesses policy opportunities and often conflicts with the more wooly-headed intellectuals in the Foreign Ministry who resemble diplomats everywhere.

My recent book is controversial because I ignored China’s moderates and diplomats. My sources were instead interviews with 34 Chinese “scholar-generals” who have published books and articles about Chinese strategy. Twenty of these generals worked for their entire careers at the prestigious Academy of Military Science in a forbidden zone fifteen miles west of Beijing. They and officers at the National Defense University have invited me to their seminars and conferences on strategy since 1995.

The military hard-liners told me they did not passively surrender all the planning of the summit to the Foreign Ministry. Instead, they cleverly used Xi’s weekly meetings with a roomful of generals to reshape the trip. Xi is the chairman of the secretive Central Military Commission. In four or five sessions, the military, with no diplomats in the room, gamed out the military aspects his speeches and meetings with President Barack Obama. Their first recommendation was that no Chinese senior general would accompany Xi and that military issues must be excluded. They succeeded. No agreements or detailed discussion of security issues will occur. The PLA opted out of Xi’s summit visit.

Senior Chinese military officials are still smarting from a surprise American request at President George W. Bush’s 2006 meeting with Hu Jintao. Hu mistakenly accepted Bush’s request that the commander of the PLA nuclear missile forces meet with his American counterpart, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, to discuss nuclear safety and stability. The White House announced it while Hu was standing there. In a 2011 Beijing visit, then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates asked again for clarity on China’s nuclear command. The meeting of strategic commanders has never happened. The military claims it also had to block another American “trick” when in 1998, in Beijing with President Bill Clinton, then-President Jiang Zemin seemed to make a public commitment to meet with the Dalai Lama, which hardliners have since blocked.

[Related: Defense One‘s complete coverage on China.

Chinese military officials told me that they worried Washington might again outsmart China’s foreign ministry diplomats as part of their summit “show,” so the military extracted six promises in advance of Xi’s departure:  

1. No cybersecurity agreement and no negotiations about the five PLA officers indicted for cyber espionage last year by the U.S. Justice Department.

2. No discussion of PLA activities in space, either a ban on the Chinese anti-satellite program or any discussion of arms control in space.

3. Seek an increase in only the type of military exchanges that provide China opportunities to understand U.S. operational weaknesses, while refusing access to sensitive PLA facilities.  

4. No restrictions that would decrease China’s covert acquisition of U.S. defense industrial technology.

5. No discussion of limits on PLA arms buildup against Taiwan.

6. No restraints on dredging or military construction in the South China Sea.     

According to the hard-liners’ recommendations, Xi should avoid security issues and instead use the visit to volunteer harmless but warm-hearted “American-style” phrases and mentioning American books he admires. Sure enough, news reports state that  Xi Jinping used his index fingers to make a gesture indicating a Chinese character “ren”, or “person” in English when delivering a major speech on China-U.S. ties during a welcome banquet in Seattle.

“The Chinese character ren is in the shape of two strokes supporting each other,” Xi said, while urging the two countries to increase  exchanges.

Still following the script, Xi continued, “The Chinese people have always held American entrepreneurship and creativity in high regards….In my younger years, I read the Federalist Papers, by Alexander Hamilton, and Common Sense, by Thomas Paine.”

And what about cyber security issues? As to negotiating a cyber security agreement, Dan Kritenbrink, the senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council told the media, “I would be reluctant to raise expectations about an agreement along the lines of what you just described. That would be a long-term goal. We’re a long ways from getting there.”

He did not mention that no senior military leader or military cyber expert is even on the large Xi delegation – by design. It is a mistake for China-watchers to listen only to the moderates and to ignore the rising influence of hardliners and the military. On that, President Xi and I seem to agree completely.     

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