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China-US Military Ties at a New Crossroads

Apr 19 , 2017
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Director, China Foundation for Int'l Strategic Studies

China-US military relations have reached another crossroads with Donald Trump as the new US president. Whether the two sides tend to have more competition and friction or more dialogue and cooperation will shape the two countries’ overall relationship in a major way.

Status quo of China-US military ties

China-US military friction has been constantly increasing in recent years, with Chinese military strength growing and the US pivoting to the Asia-Pacific. The two parties face risks of security conflicts at all potential flashpoints in East Asia. Under such circumstances, each side take the other as its main security challenge: both militaries consider the other as a main potential opponent in war. The inherent factors of confrontation are on the rise.

Meanwhile, in sharp contrast to repeated suspension of bilateral dialogue and exchanges in a fairly long period following the end of the Cold War, the two militaries have managed to continue engaging in communication and cooperation, and exchange of visits at high levels is frequent. The PLA Navy has participated twice in the US-led multi-national Pacific Rim joint military drills. Bilateral collaboration in peacekeeping, anti-terror, anti-piracy, maritime search and rescue, and disaster relief has continued to strengthen. The two militaries signed two MOU’s in 2014, enhancing capabilities for crisis avoidance and management.

The present state of China-US military ties at least indicate: 1. military relations have reached a stage where dialogue and communication must not stop, or there will be huge risks; 2. bilateral ties remain conspicuously different from those between Cold-War era Russia-US militaries, thanks to their communication and cooperation; 3. “no conflict, no confrontation” remains a common aspiration.

Prospect of China-US military relations

In the short and middle terms, the two most outstanding factors affecting China-US military ties will be evolution of security conditions in East Asia and uncertainty in the Trump Administration’s security policies.

Obama’s policy of “strategic patience” has proven unsustainable, with the North Korea nuclear crisis approaching a critical point. Trump will make a choice: coordinate and collaborate with China, restore dialogue and find a comprehensive solution; or enhance military deterrence, prepare for a pre-emptive strike on North Korea, and press China to make North Korea succumb. The former may promote China and the US to engage in more cooperation, the latter may escalate tensions on the Korean Peninsula, even trigger military conflict, even war. In that case, it would be an extremely serious test for the two militaries – whether or not they can avoid confrontation again.

The China-Japan dispute in the East China Sea has eased to some extent in the past two years. Bilateral ties have improved correspondingly, yet far from returning to their normal state. With encounters and friction between military planes and vessels of both countries increasing in the East China Sea, the risk of unexpected conflicts remains high. The Shinzo Abe administration did feel certain relief following the Trump administration’s recent remarks on the Japan-US alliance, but that has increased China’s worries. Another test for Chinese and US militaries is whether they will enter a conflict because of Japan.

As tensions in the South China Sea ease, the Trump administration has two options. One is to continue intervening in the sovereignty disputes in the area, strengthen military presence, and enhance “freedom of navigation” operations, which will only stir things up and set the stage for crisis and conflicts. The other is to support the China-ASEAN consensus on the dual-track approach to disputes resolution, and engage in serious strategic dialogue with China over preventing militarization. The tensions and friction between the two militaries will certainly ease greatly should both parties share such an orientation.

After recklessly undermining the political foundation of China-US ties, Trump has reiterated commitment to the “one China” policy. Yet, while tensions escalate between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits because of the Taiwan authorities’ non-recognition of the 1992 Consensus, the US National Defense Authorization Act 2017 openly proposes to upgrade US military relations with the island. Once conditions across the Straits worsen again, there will inevitably be negative impacts on China-US military ties.

In recent years, mutual concern and suspicion have been on the rise between China and the US in the nuclear, cyber and space fields. Some dialogue sessions have been conducted between the two national governments, but they are conspicuously missing between the two militaries. What is worrying is that Trump has proposed to substantially expand US nuclear prowess, and voices against stable strategic relations with China are becoming louder in the US.

One of the most important reasons for increasing military frictions is the US pivot to the Asia-Pacific, which includes efforts to consolidate regional military alliances, and upgrade containment of China. Trump may no longer use the term “pivot”, but he has no intention to reduce the role of US military alliances. He has also proposed to greatly increase military spending and expand the US military, and shows little interest in multilateralism. Once such proposals find their way into US Asia-Pacific security policies, they can only increase China-US military conflict and competition.

Some suggestions

1. Considering the inherent confrontational nature of China-US military relations and the high risks in East Asia, they should prioritize improving crisis-control capabilities

2. China and the US should miss no opportunity to continue enhancing cooperation in the field of global governance, especially if they can improve collaboration in the fight against terrorism, and gradually enter cooperation in nuclear security, and anti-proliferation.

3. Maintaining dialogue and communication is a necessary condition for the two militaries to strengthen crisis control and security cooperation, particularly when they have major disagreements. From there, they should explore dialogue on broader topics.

4. The two governments should take preventing an arms race and any security dilemma as an imperative task. For this purpose, leaders of both countries and militaries should strive to reach some basic consensus regarding Asia-Pacific security issues.

5. They should strive to change the zero-sum relationship between China and US bilateral military alliances. China should face up to the reality that military alliances are a long-term reality, and engage US bilateral military alliances to play constructive roles under the regional security framework; the US should try to transform its alliances, reducing their exclusiveness and make them less confrontational.

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