China's famously secretive army opened its doors just a bit Tuesday for the visit of Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This was a fence-mending mission after China cut off military ties last year over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.
The troops came out to salute Mullen for his official welcoming ceremony. One day earlier, speaking to Beijing university students, Mullen noted that China's time has come.
"It is no longer a rising power. It has in fact arrived as a world power," Mullen said.
China's newfound confidence was visible Monday as Mullen met his counterpart, Gen. Chen Bingde. While Mullen tried to showcase three new agreements for cooperation, Chen had another agenda. He criticized U.S. drills with Australia and Japan in the South China Sea as inappropriate, and he noted that China's fleet of what he called "small ships" was not commensurate with its status.
Chen also said that the U.S. ought to behave in a prudent and modest manner, and he hit out at U.S. military spending.
"I know [the] U.S. is still recovering from financial crisis, still has some difficulties in its economy," Chen said. "Given such circumstances, you are still spending so much money on the military. Isn't it placing too much pressure on the taxpayers? If [the] U.S. could reduce a bit military spending to spend more on the improvement of livelihood of American people and also do more good things for world people, wouldn't it be a better scenario?"
Rare Glimpse Of China's Military
Monday's itinerary involved watching an anti-terrorism exercise at a field command center of a regiment in Hangzhou in eastern China. The scenario involved anti-government terrorists taking control of a village primary school and temple. The media were soon ushered out.
As cicadas buzzed in the background, Col. Yang Yujun from China's Ministry of Defense Information Office offered his own reading of the military press conference. It was — you might paraphrase — the tough-love defense: He saw the outspoken criticism as a sign of closeness, not distance.
"I don't believe that between enemies they could speak [that] frankly, because they may try to guard against the others, so they could not tell all the truth. But only between friends they could speak so frankly," Yang said.
Another stop was at an air base in Shandong, where fighter planes thundered overhead, dropping flares. That foreign journalists were allowed to watch these displays and visit the army bases is extremely unusual, even though movements were tightly controlled.
A Future Of Openness For U.S.-China Relations?
In all, Mullen's visit achieved no breakthroughs on the major stumbling blocks: namely, U.S. concerns about China's military assertiveness, and China's opposition to American surveillance close to the Chinese coast. But Mullen is cautiously upbeat.
"The relationship is just recently renewed, so we have a long way to go. The leaders are very committed to that, so I'm actually confident in the future of the military-to-military relationship," he said.
He also inspected a Su-27 fighter jet, sitting in its cockpit and chatting to fighter pilots.
But, symbolic gestures aside, has this trip achieved anything concrete? The deputy chief of China's PLA, Ma Xiaotian, had an answer to that question.
"Of course there's a positive outcome. See how open we are?" Ma said. "In the future you can't keep saying we're not transparent. Next time I go to the U.S., I want this kind of transparency. I want to be able to get into a plane's cockpit, instead of just looking at the plane surrounded by red ropes 60 feet away."
Whether that newfound openness is here to stay is another question. But at the very least, China's military appears to be learning the art of spin.