As the United States was deploying destroyers, stealth bombers, and missile defense batteries around the Pacific last month as a show of force against North Korea's nuclear provocations, the Pentagon's top leaders said they had little interaction with China, alarming some senators.
But under the radar, U.S. defense and military officials were confident that Beijing understood Washington's intentions, having steadily increased the stream of communications and contact with the People's Liberation Army over the past few years. For the Pentagon's top China policy official, the trend is promising enough to leave him with a "realistic" sense that a page may have been turned and after years of fits and starts, military-to-military relations between Beijing and Washington may be reaching an even keel.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey sat with the E-Ring on Wednesday for a rare on-the-record interview about the state of relations between the Pentagon and the PLA, and their joint role in managing the North Korean nuclear standoff of the past two months.
In March, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used a "hotline" phone to call China's new minister of national defense, Gen. Chang Wanquan, for a 45-minute introductory conversation in which they discussed a range of issues. Hagel, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little, encouraged they keep an open dialogue about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Helvey said they also discussed other issues. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey also used the hotline to call China's chief of the General Staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui, prior to his own visit.
"We're really looking to expand the use of this hotline just as a mechanism for direct communication between our senior leaders," Helvey said.
A strong sign of the relationship's health has been China's receptiveness to talk at all, he said.
"The Chinese have shown a willingness to discuss North Korea with us. They've taken some steps to cooperate with the international community," said Helvey, especially at the United Nations Security Council.
"These are real opportunities and interactions."
But by design, he said, during the North Korean tension most U.S. interaction with China occurred through diplomatic channels, not the Pentagon.
"Quite frankly, the military aspects of this is not something that we wanted to highlight," Helvey said.
"We had communications certainly at my level," he explained. Helvey's job was to convey the administration's message from the Pentagon to the PLA through the Chinese defense attaché in Washington.
"Part of what we try to do in our military channels in situations like that is to make sure we're providing the same type of message that's occurring through the diplomatic channels, so that we're presenting a unified view to the Chinese," he said, "so the military understands the same thing that the Foreign Ministry is getting."
Helvey, in return, took the People's Liberation Army's view back to Hagel at the Pentagon.
At the time, Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear raised alarms when he told the Senate Armed Service Committee he had not been on the phone with the PLA Navy to manage tensions. Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, both pressed Locklear to reach out and touch someone in China.
"We're not there yet," Locklear said, at the time.
"Quite frankly it is a challenge in the relationship," Helvey said, "because our military and the Chinese military are structured somewhat differently." The PACOM commander doesn't have a direct counterpart in China, though he explained how top brass have found their way into the PLA.
"The Chinese war-fighting commands, if you were to call it that, are reflected along military regions which are organized along interior lines. So it doesn't go outside of China," he explained. Most militaries, in fact, do not have officers directly comparable to U.S. combatant commanders, who command troops deployed over vast regions of the globe.
Instead, the United States has tried to engage with several parts of the PLA in lieu of "a direct fit" by talking to regional commanders, sending Locklear and others to participate in strategic and economic dialogues, visiting Beijing, and calling on senior Chinese officers.
Since Beijing temporarily cut communications with the Pentagon during 2010, the United States and China's militaries have maintained contacts via several appointments. In 2012, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and Adm. Locklear all visited China. Beijing sent their defense minister and a high-level uniformed deputy of strategy to Washington.
Below that senior level, at least 20 exchanges, meetings, and joint exercises occurred between U.S. and PLA military and defense officials -- events that included policy talks, the convening of a maritime working group, and even a meeting between the Pentagon's office for missing POWs and PLA archivists. National Defense University and the PLA's equivalent continued their exchanges and the National War College sent a delegation to China.
Dempsey visited China last month, and later this year Gen. Ray Odernio, Army chief of staff, and Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, have scheduled China trips. On the docket are port visits, exchanges of military legal teams, a disaster management exercise, and more academic exchanges.
This summer, Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, the policy chief, will attend another round of annual consultative talks.
Outside of the bilateral relationship, Helvey said the Pentagon continues to encourage China to participate more in multilateral venues, "to become part of the international system, part of the international framework that supports stability, peace, prosperity."
"I think it's been incremental," Helvey said. "It's something that I think we're going to have to continue working."
But he sees opportunity in the PLA's own global plans. PLA leaders have tasked its force to go beyond regional missions, Helvey notes (as does the Pentagon's latest China power report, released last week), from counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden to evacuating civilians in Libya. China now deploys more U.N. peacekeeping troops than any other permanent Security Council member.
"From our perspective, if China's going to be out there using its military forces -- deploying them farther and farther away from China -- to the extent that we can encourage them to cooperate with the international community, I think that helps to bring us toward that positive outcome in the relationship that we seek."
"We want to be able to develop a positive, cooperative, comprehensive relationship with China. There's a role for having a healthy, stable, reliable military-to-military relationship, and that's what we want to do," he said.
Still, there are skeptics who remain less than eager to lock arms with the PLA. Just last year, China often was painted as a rival, even an enemy, in a heated presidential campaign. But Helvey persists.
"The U.S.-China relationship is complex," he said. "It is very complex, but a critically important relationship. I think the military-to-military relationship has improved, but I think we have very real expectations of what we can get out of it."
Friction is, he said, "inevitable."
"The relationship now is probably as good as it's been in recent memory."
The goal remains to be able to weather those storms without another military-to-military blackout.
"We have realistic expectations."
DOD photo by Marine Corps Sgt. Aaron Hostutler
It's déjà vu all over again for the Pentagon's latest annual "China power report" released on Monday, in which Defense Department policy bosses have determined that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) is continuing to expand, modernize, and buy more and weaponry and capabilities mostly designed to keep outside powers like the United States out of its immediate territory.
"China's military buildup shows no signs of slowing," said Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Helvey, at the Pentagon.
What worries Helvey most is that despite increased transparency from China, the United States feels that Beijing continues to keep its plans and intentions for the PLA far too close to the vest and "many uncertainties remain" about the PLA budget.
"There's a lot yet that remains to be said," Helvey said. "This report poses a number of questions -- questions to which we don't have answers."
According to the report, China's military is focused on acquiring more missiles, counter-space weapons, and cyberwarfare technology. In fact, in just about every corner of the military toolbox, the PLA is increasing stocks: "nuclear deterrence and long-range conventional strike; advanced fighter aircraft; limited regional power projection, with the commissioning of China's first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning; integrated air defenses; undersea warfare; improved command and control; and more sophisticated training and exercises across China's air, naval, and land forces."
China's Second Artillery unit, which controls its nuclear arsenal, has been particularly active. "It is developing and testing several new classes and variants of offensive missiles, forming additional missile units, upgrading older missile systems, and developing methods to counter ballistic missile defenses," the report claims.
One quick note: while the world saw China's first aircraft carrier come online last year, the Pentagon expects it will not have an operational air wing until 2015. The Pentagon seems more concerned about the next decade, as the PLA has announced its intention to build its own carriers. The Pentagon expects the first home-built Chinese carrier by the end of this decade, according to the report.
Helvey claimed the administration has achieved "positive" momentum in U.S.-China military-to-military relations, citing a number of high-level visits between Beijing and Washington in 2012. He would not comment further on reports of China's cyber espionage and theft of military secrets. But the true extend of trust in that relationship was bluntly in view during last months' nuclear standoff with North Korea, when Pentagon and Joint Staff officials conceded there was little interaction between top U.S. and Chinese commanders.
Everyone knows that China blocks Internet access to Facebook, but even, it seems, for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey.
Dempsey's Facebook status, which usually actively shares the chairman's daily public appearances, has not updated since Sunday, when he was still in Seoul, South Korea.
Dempsey is in the middle of a rare visit to China, but judging from his Facebook page and most mainstream news outlets, you probably wouldn't know it.
Dempsey's visit has been virtually ignored by Western media and barely covered even by the national security press, which in the past two weeks has shifted its blanket attention from North Korea to Boston. But in the past two days, Dempsey, the top U.S. military officer, has met with China's President Xi Jingping, defense chief Gen. Fang Fenghui, and Defense Minister Gen. Chang Wanguan.
True, the chairman rarely travels with press, and this trip was no exception. For his trip to Beijing, the Christian Science Monitor's Anna Mulrine was the lucky Pentagon reporter given a seat on his plane to cover "the highest-level military talks between the two superpowers in two years."
Mulrine is practically the only westerner filing copy about Dempsey's visit. ABC News's Bob Woodruff is also on board and tweeting nice pictures along the way through Alaska and Seoul to Tiananmen Square, here. The New York Times's Beijing correspondent Jane Perlez also covered Dempsey's first day, here.
On Monday, Dempsey and Feng met behind closed doors and emerged to declare their shared fears about cyber attacks, the destructive value of which Feng said could be "as serious a nuclear bomb," Mulrine reported.
Dempsey and Fang later held a press conference in which a Chinese journalist asked why U.S. military exercises are conducted so close to China. Dempsey replied that the concern is at "the core" of why he came to Beijing - alluding to the Pentagon's mission to avoid any military misunderstandings.
So far, there has not been much news to report. Dempsey said the United States had treaty obligations to maintain -- a reference to Taiwan -- while Fang said, "The Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate us both."
Dempsey has two more days of meetings in China, including with Chinese soldiers.
UPDATE: Dempsey's spokesman emailed the E-Ring from China saying that they plan to post one big Facebook status update on China after their visit, instead of daily updates.
When asked if that was a cybersecurity decision, Col. David Lapan replied, "Not at all."
Photo by Andy Wong - Pool/Getty Images
In a late addition to next week's Asia tour, Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, will visit in South Korea on Sunday, the E-Ring has learned, as tensions between North Korea and U.S. allies show signs of easing.
Dempsey takes off on Friday for a long-scheduled trip to China, his first visit, and Japan. Pentagon officials wanted to gauge the North Korean standoff closer to his departure date before deciding whether to touch down in Seoul.
The visit gives Dempsey a chance to makeup a face-to-face meeting with South Korea's Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Jung Seung-jo, which was supposed to happen this week during U.S.-Republic of Korea talks at the Pentagon. But because of the Korean crisis, Jung remained home on the peninsula, as did U.S. Forces Korea commanding general, Gen. James Thurman, who would have been in Washington for the talks and to appear before the House Armed Services Committee. The bilateral talks instead were conducted as a secure video teleconference, and included the U.S. Pacific commander, Adm. Samuel Locklear.
In a joint communiqué, Dempsey and Jung declared the U.S.-ROK alliance "stronger than ever," on Wednesday.
"They also reaffirmed that both countries will respond firmly to any provocation by North Korea," according to the document. In October, both sides will seek approval on the specifics for a new command structure for combined forces on the Korean Peninsula.
Dempsey leaves Washington on Friday and after stopping in Alaska will visit South Korea on Sunday. He then is scheduled to spend four days in China, visiting with his counterpart, Gen. Fang Fenghui, and other senior defense and political officials.
Dempsey may meet China's Presiden Xi Jinping, according to the chairman's staff, but Chinese officials have yet to finalize their schedules.
Dempsey also will visit several People's Liberation Army units, which officials declined to name, citing security measures.
In his second visit to Japan as chairman, Dempsey will meet his counterpart Shigeru Iwasaki, chief of the Joint Staff, to talk about North Korea and the gamut of "regional issues," a Dempsey spokesman said.
DOD photo by D. Myles Cullen
Photo by Feng Li/Getty Images
DOD photo by Glenn Fawcett
Feng Li/Getty Images
SENATOR MAZIE HIRONO (D-HI): Thank you, Mr. Chairman and Ranking Member Inhofe. I join my colleagues in welcoming you, Senator Hagel.
We live in a complex world, and any secretary of defense should ask tough questions, maybe not particularly politically popular questions. And I see you, Senator Hagel, as that kind of person based on your service to our country, your conduct and responses to the questions asked of you today and the conversation that you and I had.
Turning to your statement this morning, you talked about looking at our future threats and challenges and why the Department of Defense is rebalancing its resources toward the Asia-Pacific region. And of course this kind of rebalance is critically important to Hawaii (in ?) our forward position in the Pacific.
Would you expand as to why and what particular economic or national security factors come in to play as we rebalance to the Asia- Pacific region.
MR. HAGEL: Senator, you know better than most your region and its importance and why it will continue to be important to the world, but certainly to the United States.
As I noted in my opening statement, and you know, we have always been a Pacific power. We have been a Pacific power because we have clear economic interests there. We have diplomatic security interests there. We have strong allies there; I mentioned some of them in my opening statement.
When we look at the growth of economies, we look at trade growth, we look at population growth, the rise of China, but not just China, but that entire Asia Pacific region, we need to stay relevant to opportunities as well as challenges in all areas, but in particular the areas that we see as emerging as to the largest, most significant economic security issues and challenges and opportunities.
It's appropriate that any nation rebalance assets. You have to be relevant to the times, to the shifts, the changes. Our world today is totally different than it was 12 years ago. Our force structure is being refit, and we are looking at a far more agile, flexible force structure as our economies are becoming more agile and flexible.
So for all those reasons and more, that's why we are doing what I think is exactly the right thing to do. It doesn't mean, as I said in my opening statement, that we are abandoning anybody or any part of the world. We can't.
SEN. HIRONO: Senator, and as we live in times of budget constraints, will you commit to keeping me and this committee informed as you develop the strategies and contemplate force posture adjustments that go along with this kind of re-balancing?
MR. HAGEL: Yes, and I look forward to it.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Canadian Forces photo by MCpl Marc-Andre Gaudreault, Canadian Forces Combat Camera
Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring.