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Foreign Policy

Can Hagel Promote a Constructive US Role in Asia?

Apr 07 , 2014
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

At the invitation of Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, US Secretary of Defense Hagel is scheduled to visit China from April 7 to 10, 2014. As Chang Wanquan visited the US last August, it is a return visit by the US Secretary, which will surely provide a very good opportunity for the military leaders of both countries to review the latest developments in the Sino-US military relationship and to work out new plans for its further development. What is the current status quo of the Sino-US military relationship? It is necessary to analyze the progress the two sides have made in recent months, and the challenges that lie ahead before objective observation can be made of Hagel’s forthcoming visit. 

Wu Zurong

There has been a remarkable increase in dialogues and exchanges between the two sides, and this is a bright spot. Following Chang Wanquan’s visit to the US, Wu Shengli, Commander of the Navy of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, also visited the US last September. Since then, the US chiefs of staff of the Air Force and the Army have both visited China. The Defense Ministry of China and the US Department of Defense held their 14th consultation on defense affairs.  An inter-session of the China-US interim Strategic Security Dialogue and the 5th Consultation on Asia-Pacific Affairs were also held, with a program list worked out about Sino-US cooperation in certain areas in Asia. Also, there have been quite a number of notable joint drills and exercises. Last August in the Gulf of Aden near Somali and last September off the coast of Hawaii, the Chinese Naval vessels and their US counterparts conducted a counter-piracy drill and humanitarian rescue exercises respectively, followed by a joint humanitarian rescue drill in Hawaii last November, and participation of the PLA in the 33rd annual Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand last February.  The increasing dialogues and military exchanges between the Chinese and the US armed forces are viewed as important steps to build a new type of Sino-US military relationship. 

The promotion of strategic and military trust between the two sides has witnessed specific progress. The two sides have now decided to start an exploration of the mechanism of informing each other of major military activities, and of the study on the issue of a code of conduct for Chinese and American air and sea security, and the departments of strategic planning and policy of the two defense ministries have agreed to set up an exchange mechanism. These constructive steps will play an important role in increasing mutual understanding and in avoiding strategic misjudgment.

Major obstacles to the building of new type of Sino-US military relationship remain. The US arms sales to Taiwan have thus far not been terminated. US air force planes and naval ships continue to conduct intense reconnaissance of China and disrupt the normal training of the PLA by willfully entering China’s special economic zones. It is still an arduous mission to review and remove US restrictions on the development of the Sino-US military relationship. The Joint China-US Economic Track Fact Sheet of the fifth meeting of the China-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue declares that “China and the United States will commit to discuss issues concerning China raised in the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriation Act, 2013”. However, such discussions are far from sufficient. 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 the Fiscal Year 2000, the Delay Amendment, and so forth. 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.

There is also an obvious gap as compared with Sino-US military cooperation in the 1980s; that is, the lack of cooperation in the area of military equipment and technologies. It should be resumed as soon as possible. Such cooperation will not harm US strategic interests. It will only help China and the US strengthen military trust and benefit both sides. 

The US military alliance strategy in Asia faces the risk of going astray. The US bilateral military alliances with Japan, the Philippines and other countries were formed during the Cold War. In this new era, when peace and development are the priority, they act as a square peg in a round hole. There is a dangerous tendency that the two military alliances of US-Japan and US-Philippines are being employed by Japan and the Philippines for their illegal occupation of China’s territories as a powerful backing. If the US fails to clearly see the danger behind their tricks and continues to take sides on the territorial disputes between China and Japan, as well as between China and the Philippines, Japan and the Philippines would feel encouraged and become bolder to make trouble or provoke conflict in the region. For the sake of peace and stability in Asia, as well as the long-term interests of the US, the US has to handle US-Japan and US-Philippines military alliances with extreme care. 

It can be expected that Hagel’s forthcoming visit will help remove obstacles and overcome difficulties, facilitate exchanges and cooperation between the two sides in the area of Asia-Pacific security, and the building of a new type of Sino-US military relationship. 

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

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