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Foreign Policy

A New Level of Sino-US Military Relations

Aug 09 , 2013
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

The China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July concluded with 91 outcomes from the strategic track. In Military-to-Military Relations,the press release notes that both sides are “committed to strengthening the military -to- military relationship and to make efforts to raise the relationship to a new level.” 

The Sino-US military relationship is not short of problems or crisis. Currently the pendulum is swinging in the right direction. Chinese Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan and Naval Commander Admiral Wu Shengli are expected to visit the US this year. Right now the atmosphere is good in the institutionalized mechanisms, such as the Defense Consultative Talks, Defense Policy Consultative Talks and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meeting, with talks focusing more on cooperation rather than on differences. Apart from discussions on the nuclear and outer space issue, a cyber security meeting has been added in the strategic security dialogue under S&ED and will be held twice this year. The top military leaders are also using hotlines more willingly to communicate with each other. 

A good starting point for the new level of relationship is crisis management. The S&ED obligates both sides to “actively explore a notification mechanism for major military activities and to continue discussions on the rules of behavior on military air and maritime activities”. So the definition and scope of “military activities” has to be clarified and agreed to first. For example, do they include military exercises with or without other nations (allies) in the Asia-Pacific region? Do they include “rebalanced” American deployment of troops or weapons systems in China’s periphery? Do they include similar, if any, anti-satellite missile tests in the future, like the one conducted by China in 2007 and by the US in 2008? On the rules of behavior in military air and maritime activities, do they include the American reconnaissance by ships and aircraft in China’s EEZ and the Chinese naval flotilla’s unannounced but legitimate passage in the Japanese straits? 

To make things more complicated, the same term may denote different meanings for the two militaries. For example, freedom of navigation is acknowledged by both China and the US according to UNCLOS, but the Chinese believe that military activities cannot be simply categorized as freedom of navigation, and cannot infringe on the coastal states’ national security interests while the US maintains that military activities fall within the freedoms of navigation and overflight and other internationally lawful uses of the sea related to those freedoms. 

Non-traditional security is a “soft” area where cooperation is relatively easier. Among on-going cooperation on anti-terrorism, military medicine, pandemic disease control and humanitarian aid and disaster relief, counter-piracy is a fine example of cooperation. On November 22, 2010, USNS Lewis and Clark and USS Winston Churchill provided substantial help to the PLA Navy in relieving the Chinese ship “Taiankou” that was pirated in the Gulf of Aden. At present, piracy in the Gulf of Aden has dwindled considerably thanks to the joint efforts of international naval forces including China and the US, but it is on the rise in the Gulf of Guinea. Could international naval forces join hands again and provide assistance to the troubled coastal states in the gulf? 

More can be done about peacekeeping. To date, China is the largest troop and police contributor among the five permanent members of the UN Security Council with 22,000 military personnel dispatched to 23 peacekeeping missions and the US the largest fund contributor, paying $ 7.33 billion, over 28% of the total, for the fiscal year 1 July 2012-30 June 2013. But interaction between the two is rare. In spite of a 23-year involvement, Chinese peacekeeping is primarily confined to providing engineering, logistic and medical support to avoid the sensitive issue of sending “combat troops”.  However, on June 27, 2013 and for the first time in history, China announced that it would send security force to be deployed in Mali. Not only can the two militaries exchange experiences in troop’s deployment, rules of engagement, security awareness and logistics support, but also they can provide support and training to regional peace-keepers of African Union who are considered less effective due to lack of funds, equipment and expertise. 

Bilateral or multilateral exercises should continue. Last year saw the two militaries in bilateral counter-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden and Table Top Exercise of Disaster Relief in Chengdu. In April the Chinese military spokesman announced that in 2013, China and the US will have a joint exercise of Disaster Relief by the two armies and another counter-piracy naval exercise in the Gulf of Aden. China has also accepted the invitation from the US to attend a multilateral exercise RIMPAC 2014 in the waters off Hawaii. In the regional organizations such as ARF and ADMM PLUS, multilateral exercises such as HADR&MM exercise in Brunei in June involved both China and the US. These exercises can be held more often if not institutionalized to enhance the interoperability and promote capacity-building. 

The most challenging area is to promote cooperation in the traditional security area, since it requires greater trust. Still, this is a rare good example of cooperation. In 1998 China and the US signed an agreement not to target their nuclear weapons at each other. Could they go a step further to sign a non-first-use agreement, like that between China and Russia? Over the years, China has asked the US to stop selling arms to Taiwan and the US has called on China to withdraw the deployed short-range missiles aiming at Taiwan. The Taiwan Strait now enjoys unprecedented peace. Could China agree to withdraw missiles and the US promise not to sell arms to Taiwan? Could the US lift the restrictions in the Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 and Delay Amendment that restrict the American military’s exchanges with PLA? 

At the Sunnyland summit Chinese president Xi Jinping and the US President Barack Obama pledged to establish a “new type of relationship between the major powers” and the supposed “new level” of military relationship expressed in S&ED is apparently one of the follow-up actions that require unremitting and even painstaking efforts from the two militaries.                                                

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.

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