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Thursday, Dec. 6, 2007

So what's bothering China's generals?

LOS ANGELES — What's eating the People's Liberation Army?

In the last few weeks, China's top PLA generals have been acting like a bunch of old guys with inactive social lives. They've been grumpy, pouting, defying and downright cranky.

In Hong Kong, the generals have been acting like an over-the-top King Kong — and no one has been firing bullets at them! Consider: A U.S. aircraft carrier was steaming toward that gorgeous harbor, where thousands of relatives, friends and well-wishers were waiting to greet the sailors for a Thanksgiving Day holiday retreat — and at the last minute the previously waved-in U.S. ship was denied a berth.

Before that, a pair of U.S. naval ships, trying to avoid a devastating storm, looked to Hong Kong for a safe-harboring — and were told by Chinese authorities to stay at sea and suck it up. Another U.S. warship, applying for Hong Kong docking during the coming (Western) New Year holiday, had do-not-approach cold water thrown in its face. A cargo plane, wishing to land with supply provisions for the U.S. consulate in Hong Kong, was told to forget about it and go fly a kite.

What is going on? We've been told over and over again that China's economic rise would be a "peaceful one," and that cooperation with the United States was central to that rise. Unlike the Chinese militarists, the Chinese have been doing a pretty good job at co-rising peacefully.

Consider the two big nuclear questions involving North Korea and Iran. The six-party talks initiated by Beijing that brought Washington and Pyongyang together remain on-track, North Korea's nuclear dismantling has begun, and another session is to take place soon. On the Iran issue, Beijing is starting to get just as fed-up as the West over Tehran's diplomatic foot-dragging over coming clean about its nuclear program and ambitions.

By contrast, China's brassy military would sometimes appear to be orbiting in another solar system. Instead of leaving international relations entirely with skilled diplomats, PLA generals sometime throw public tantrums when they're unhappy.

No doubt China's military high command was put off by the recent four-power (Japan-U.S.-Australia-India) military exercises. They were unmistakably directed against China — all the insincere four-power official denials notwithstanding. Nor were the Chinese charmed when the U.S. Congress awarded the Dalai Lama a special medal. A Hollywood celebrity like Richard Gere may view the Dalai as nothing more dangerous than a religious leader. But remember: the Chinese government is a communist government, communists do not believe in god and communists suspect that anyone masquerading as either God or as someone with an alleged special tie to God may be doing the devil's work.

Then there's the explosive matter of new American arms-sales to Taiwan. Many may regard the 23-million-populated island some 160-plus km off China's mainland as a little innocent poster boy for democracy. But the boys in Beijing look cross-eyed at the Taiwanese when they openly discuss a formal declaration of national independence. U.S. arming of Taiwan only encourages — to Beijing's mind — the "separatists" to believe they can safely separate forever.

These are all sensitive matters, best handled by competent diplomats. But by big-footing itself into the picture, the PLA blew it this time. For one thing, in their truculent Hong Kong actions, the Chinese generals chose to pick a fight in the wrong way and with the wrong enemy: the U.S. Navy.

Especially with regard to the two minesweeper denials, not helping sailors caught in a fierce storm is maybe the most insensitive blunder any navy of any nationality can make.

What's worse, the U.S. Naval Command has been — of all the U.S. service branches — the biggest supporter of military-to-military contacts with the Chinese. From forward-thinking Admiral Joseph Prueher back in the late '90s on down to the current Pacific Commander today, top navy brass has taken a consistently sensible approach to relations with the People's Republic of China.

William H. Overholt, one of America's most respected China experts, a relentlessly steadfast advocate of U.S. engagement with China, and author of the extraordinary new book "Asia, America, and The Transformation of Geopolitics," puts the matter bluntly: "Ruining the sailors' Thanksgiving was a seriously consequential gaffe."

Let's hope a generals' gaffe was all it was. Let's hope that China's military continues to honor and respect its subordination to the Communist Party. Let's hope that the PLA is not simply fed up with all this "peaceful rising" baloney peddled by the country's flower-power diplomats and is not instead getting ready to explode.

When PLA antics like this get the better of China, you have to wonder whether the PLA in some sense isn't in fact semi-sovereign. It's true that most countries have a military — and there's nothing unusual about that. But sometimes with China you develop the suspicion that maybe its military has a country.

Tom Plate, a board member of the Burkle Center on International Relations at UCLA, is a full-time professor of communication and policy studies and a veteran journalist. Copyright Tom Plate 2007

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