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Foreign Policy

More to Expect from a New Type of China-US Military Relationship

Apr 07 , 2014

US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is in China for his first official visit since taking office. He is the third US Secretary of Defense to visit China within 3 years, following Robert Gates in January 2011 and Leon Panetta in September 2012. It not only indicates that the US attaches great importance to China-US military relations, but also that there is a strong positive momentum of China-US mil-to-mil relations after a nearly one-year suspension in 2010 in the wake of the Obama administration’s US arms sales to Taiwan.

The China-US military relationship has gone into fast track since Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama met at the Annenberg Estate last June and reached an agreement on building a new type of great power relations between China and the US.

First, there have been frequent high-level exchanges between the two militaries, including Chinese Minister of National Defense Gen. Chang Wanquan’s visit to Washington last June; PLA Navy Commander Admiral Wu Shengli’s visit to Hawaii last October; and U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno’s visit to Beijing in March this year. PLA Chief of General Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui is scheduled to visit the US, and US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert is planning to visit China in the next few months.

Secondly, there has been a dramatic increase in joint military exercises between the two militaries, including anti-piracy drills in the Gulf of Aden last August jointly conducted by the PLA Navy and the fifth fleet of the US navy; a search-and-rescue exercise near Hawaii last September with Chinese and U.S. naval vessels; as well as a joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief drill in Hawaii last November. The PLA Joined the US-Thailand Golden Cobra military exercises in February this year and is invited to participate in the RIMPAC 2014 multi-national military exercise this summer. Put together, the number of these exercises is even more than the sum of China-US joint military exercises over the past few years.

Third, there have been more institutionalized dialogues between the two militaries. Besides the annual China-US Strategic Security Dialogue beginning in 2011 under the framework of the China-US Economic & Strategic Dialogue, the dialogue between PLA Strategic Planning Department and the J5 Strategic Plans and Policy of US Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as a dialogue between PLA army and the US army have been set up. The communication channels, including Defense Consultative Talks (DCT), Maritime Military Consultative Agreement (MMCA) and Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) have been more effectively used to explore the development of a Sino-US mutual notification mechanism for major military operations, and to discuss the establishment of a ‘code of conduct on naval and air military security at high sea,’ amongst other defense-related matters.

All these breakthroughs are a part of joint efforts by China and the US to foster exchanges and cooperation in order to promote mutual trust. The China-US bilateral relationship is generally viewed as the most complex in the world because it is a mixture of both positive and negative sides, as well as a mixture of friendship and rivalry. Therefore, it is extremely important to manage the relationship to assure that positive elements always outweigh the negative, and that win-win cooperation always outweighs conflict and confrontation. Under this context, the concept of building a new type of a China-US military relationship was raised, which highlights ‘no confrontation, no conflict, mutual respect and win-win cooperation’. The ‘new’ means that it is different from the models in China-US military history, including the ‘hostility model’ from 1949, when the PRC was founded, to 1979 when China and the US normalized their diplomatic relations, the ‘friend model’ in the 1980s when China and the US faced a common threat from the former Soviet Union, and the “on-again-off-again model” since the end of 1980s caused mainly by a lack of mutual trust.

The above-mentioned positive developments do not mean that contradictions and problems between the two militaries have dramatically decreased. In fact, given their differences in social systems, ideologies, cultures, traditions and development stages, the two powers not only often have different or even conflicting understanding on some issues, but also have challenges that will last for a long time. For example, the ‘three obstacles’ hindering China-US mil-to-mil relations, namely US arms sales to Taiwan, US vessel and aircraft reconnaissance along China’s coastline, and US restrictions on US-China military exchanges authorized by the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000, have been raised for years, but little progress has been made so far. Another challenge testing the new relationship is the US rebalancing strategy towards the Asia-Pacific. In other words, the US needs to convince China that its strategy is not one of containment, even while it strengthens its regional alliances with some of its allies in maritime territorial disputes. For example, the US declares it has an official policy of “not-taking-sides” towards sovereignty over disputed islands such as the Diaoyu between China and Japan, but at the same time it carries out joint exercises with them to show its tendentious stance on the disputes. The lack of conformity between US words and deeds makes many people suspect US strategic intentions towards China, and endangers their fragile mutual trust.

In short, the China-US military relationship is of great significance not only for the overall relationship between the two powers, but also for Asia-Pacific peace and stability as a whole. Either for promoting cooperation and mutual trust or for managing differences and challenges, the two militaries need to have more exchanges and communication, as well as better understanding about each other. Despite difficulties and challenges ahead, against the background of building a new type of great power relations and a new type of mil-to-mil relationship, I am sure Secretary Chuck Hagel’s visit will push the positive momentum of China-US military relationship to a higher level.

Senior Colonel Zhao Xiaozhuo is deputy director of the Center on China-US Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science, PLA, China.

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