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US-China: Why focus on transparency?

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3 November 2007 15:52

US Defense Secretary Robert Gates repeated a consistent Bush Administration talking point in his recent remarks about China's military rise: no, we don't see China as a threat, and yes, we have much-improved relations. But, said Gates, 'I have concerns with a variety of the military programs that they have under way and the developmental programs. I have concern with the lack of transparency.' The consistent US emphasis on transparency warrants some thought. What exactly will it gain the US for China to be more transparent about its military?

It certainly wouldn't be a trivial achievement: transparency builds trust and so could reduce regional tensions. But it wouldn't change the fundamentals. Even if the Chinese Government told us exactly what it spends on its military, that wouldn't make China's spending growth any less worrying than it already is to the US. And even if China was more open about the size and composition of the PLA, we wouldn't expect them to hand over their Taiwan war plans. So the US would maintain its suspicions there.

 How, then, has the call for transparency come to occupy such a prominent place in US military diplomacy with China?

My guess is it's a placeholder. The US probably calculates that there is little to be gained from publicly airing its real concerns about China's military growth, or its fears about the threat to Taiwan. In fact, doing so would probably be counterproductive to the overall relationship with China. But the US can't just say nothing, so it focuses on the convenient issue of transparency. It rankles the Chinese, but not too much; it signals to regional allies that the US isn't supine in the face of Chinese military growth; and in emphasising government accountability, it gives a gentle nod to the Bush Administration's democracy agenda.

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