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Foreign Policy

Building a New Type of Sino-US Military Relationship

Sep 23 , 2013
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

Following the successful visit to the United States last month by Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, the Commander of the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Wu Zhengli also visited the U.S. from September 8 to 14, 2013.   The Defense Ministry of China and the US Department of Defense held their 14th consultation on defense affairs, co-chaired by Wang Guanzhong, Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese PLA and Miller, Deputy Secretary of Defense of the US. Also last month in the Gulf of Aden and this month off the coast of Hawaii, the Chinese Naval vessels and their US counterparts conducted a joint counter-piracy drill and humanitarian rescue exercises. 

The increasing military exchanges between the Chinese and the US armies are viewed as important steps to build a new type of relationship between the two armies, and have aroused wide public attention and positive comments.  However, when China and the US try to build a new type of military relationship, they still have to remove quite a few obstacles, and deal with a lot of challenges. There is still a long way to go before China and the US can make substantive progress in building a new type of relationship between the two countries and two armies. 

Continued high level exchanges can help promote strategic and military trust between the two countries and also between the two armies.  In addition to informing each other on major military activities and studying the code of conduct for Chinese and American air and sea security, the departments of strategic planning and policy of both armies have agreed to set up an exchange mechanism. It is a highly constructive step towards increasing mutual understanding, as well as strategic and military trust. The high number of exchanges and cooperation will continue, as the two sides have made very specific arrangements for exchanges for the rest of this year and next. Defense Secretary Hagel, Army Chief of Staff Odierno and Air Force Chief of Staff Welsh are all planning to visit China. However, military exchanges and cooperation between the two armies are still restricted in scope and field by outdated US laws. 

A new outlook is urgently needed to review the current status of Sino-US military relations. For the sake of expanding common interests, it was constructive when the Joint China-US Economic Track Fact Sheet of the fifth meeting of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue declared that “China and the United States commit to discuss issues concerning China raised in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriation Act, 2013”. Such discussions are undoubtedly helpful for increasing mutual understanding on specific issues, and can pave the way for possible solutions. 

To help build a new type of Sino-US military relationship, the new approach can be extended to discussions of issues concerning China raised in some other US domestic laws, such as the Taiwan Relations Act, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000, the Delay Amendment and so on. US domestic laws on China restrict or hinder the healthy, smooth development of Sino-US relations, including military relations. As many of those articles were introduced during the cold war, or when Sino-US relations were strained, they need to be reviewed in a wholly new light. 

It is necessary to expand exchanges and refrain from doing anything that could harm Sino-US military relations or strategic trust. Frankly speaking, the current Sino-US military relationship is quite limited, despite the high notes of the 1980s. In addition to the high level exchanges, and cooperation in the non-traditional security areas, the two countries and two armies need to start cooperating in the area of military equipment and technologies. Such cooperation will not harm US strategic interests. It will only help China and the US to strengthen military trust and benefit both sides. 

On the other hand, as China and the US have growing common interests in regional security cooperation, the two countries and armies need to consult each other more often, especially on the Asia-Pacific region. The US should work with all Asia-Pacific countries and partners, not to sow discord or take sides by strengthening the military alliances formed during the cold war period. When China and the US expand their exchanges and cooperation in the area of Asia-Pacific security, the situation in the Asia-Pacific region will be more peaceful, and differences and disputes in the region will be resolved. Increased exchanges and cooperation will truly promote the building of a new type of Sino-US military relationship. 

A long journey starts with a first step. The recent increased military exchanges and cooperation between China and the US can be regarded as a step towards building a new type of Sino-US military relationship.  So long as the two sides persist in working together to expand exchanges and cooperation, remove obstacles, and overcome difficulties, a brighter future for the Sino-US military relationship can be expected. 

Wu Zurong is a research fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies.

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