BEIJING — China’s top general publicly admonished the United States on Monday for a wide array of issues, ranging from spending too much on its military during an economic downturn to the timing of joint exercises with other nations in the South China Sea.
The critique of the American military came during a news conference with Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, who's visiting China during a series of exchanges meant to boost relations. Gen. Chen Bingde, the chief of the general staff of the People’s Liberation Army, said he hoped that “our American friends will understand the underlying logic of being more modest and prudent in words and deeds.”
The Chinese military had cut off talks with the United States last year after Washington announced a $6 billion-plus arms deal with Taiwan, an island that China considers part of its sovereign territory. Mullen’s meetings this week with Chen, who came to the United States in May, were seen as a step toward mending those ties.
But Chen's remarks made clear that China’s growth will continue to present a challenge to the American military presence in Asia.
While plans to cooperate in anti-piracy patrols in the Gulf of Aden — between Somalia and Yemen — and to hold joint humanitarian missions were cited as signs of progress, they were outnumbered by Chen’s complaints about U.S. conduct, including allowing visits by the Dalai Lama, whom China's leadership views as a dangerous separatist leader.
At the core of the tensions is China’s push to strengthen its hold on the South China Sea, an area thought to be rich in oil and mineral reserves where several U.S. allies — including Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines — have competing claims.
While China prefers to broker the situation with each of those nations individually, an approach that would give Beijing an advantage over the smaller countries, the United States has pushed for multilateral talks.
The Chinese government views U.S. support of its neighbors with a suspicion fed in some quarters by fears that America is trying to hem in its power through a policy of “containment.” The U.S. recently held joint military exercises with the Philippines and, off the coast of Brunei, with Australia and Japan. A U.S. Navy visit to Vietnam reportedly is scheduled for later this month.
At the news conference Monday, Chen referred to U.S. assurances that it won't take sides in the South China Sea dispute as “simply words.”
“What we are observing is that at this particular time, when China and related claimants have some problems with each other, the United States decided to hold such large-scale joint exercises with other claimants,” Chen said. “At the least, I think this is bad timing.”
As he did in remarks a day earlier, Mullen asserted that “we’ve exercised with our allies and friends in this part of the world for decades and we will continue to do that.”
The challenge, Mullen said, was to try to integrate those “enduring interests” between the United States and other regional allies with the U.S.-China relationship, “particularly as China grows.”
“We can allow narrow interests and suspicion to define us and our relations with each other or we can try to find ways to put those aside,” Mullen said.
He added: “I believe I speak for General Chen when I say we both seek the latter. This does not mean we will always agree. There remain between us many issues of misunderstanding and, quite frankly, apprehension.”
Beyond the issue of the South China Sea, Chen offered a sprawling commentary on problems he had with the American military.
There were specific items, such as his assertion that the United States conducts surveillance just 16 nautical miles from China’s border.
He also offered a recollection of his thoughts from the May trip to America. “I was a bit sad,” Chen said during the almost 90-minute news conference. “I know the United States is still recovering from the financial crisis, and still has some difficulties in its economy.
"It would be a better thing if the United States did not spend so much money on the military.”
He brushed off concerns about the rise in China’s military spending, saying it was just catching up after years of underinvestment and that it still paled in comparison with the U.S. defense budget. China's military budget is thought to be less than $100 billion, versus $549 billion for the 2011 fiscal year for the Pentagon.
The day before, however, Mullen noted in a conversation with reporters that the Chinese military is developing “some very specific capabilities ... that are very focused on the United States’ capability.”
“What I have spoken with my counterpart about before and certainly seek to discuss again,” Mullen said, “is a better understanding of what the strategic intent and the strategic thrust is.”