If rising China is the key variable that changes the world, then the changing United States might be the biggest variable that shakes China-U.S bilateral relations. There are mainly six American variables affecting the Sino-U.S. military and security relationship, and from their development trends, we might discern three possible scenarios.
First, U.S. domestic politics. It is a general trend that American strategy towards China has become increasingly tough since the end of the Cold War. The widespread discussion on China in American strategic circles since 2015 has reflected Americans’ high anxieties over the impact of China’s rapid rise on U.S. global leadership, alliance system, economic model, and democratic values. Although President Trump’s attitude towards China has an unconventional personal touch, it does not go beyond the general framework of the U.S. strategy towards China. Now, there is a bipartisan consensus on being tough on China. In the next five to ten years, no matter who is in power, the U.S. government will take more measures to hedge against, balance, and suppress China.
Second, the Trump factor. On the surface, the Trump administration is moving toward isolationism and trade protectionism; in reality, it is laying out a new international order that is once again dominated by American hegemony and conforms to the definition of American strategy with the lowest cost of public goods and the highest American interest. Its national security team puts military officers in important positions, and emphasizes decisiveness and obedience, which might set the stage for possible future military adventures. In the foreseeable future, the Trump administration will continue provocation and pressure, undermine regional stability, and magnify crises, which will aggravate and complicate the confrontation between China and the United States.
Third, defense expenditure. There is a historic increase in the U.S. defense budget, but military spending will be increasingly constrained by national debt and the domestic economic situation. Besides, regional tensions in the Middle East and central Europe are likely to affect the pace at which the United States redirects its military resources to the Asia-Pacific region.
Fourth, military doctrine. The 2018 National Defense Strategy puts forward the concepts of Global Operating Model and Dynamic Force Employment, emphasizing sustainable capabilities for major combat and flexible employment, so as to be strategically predictable, but operationally unpredictable.
Fifth, military buildup. The Third Offset Strategy and the new round of defense reforms will accelerate innovation, accept more failures, and enlarge the technology gap between the two militaries. To deal with China, the U.S. adopts a whole-of-government approach, prepares for a long-term competition, and works to maintain a modern and combat ready Joint Force. To deal with China’s military modernization, it focuses on high-end warfare capabilities, including: 5th generation aircraft; munitions capable of penetrating China’s anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) network; undersea warfare dominance capabilities; and survivable logistics and mission partner networks.
Six, force deployment. The U.S. is increasing its military deployment in the Indo-Pacific region. In addition to fielding additional assets and upgrading existing infrastructure, it will disperse such critical enablers as communication nodes, fuel repositories, medical centers, and logistic support equipment, in order to enhance resilience. Further, it will strengthen bilateral and multilateral security cooperation, and pursue more agreements with host nations to gain access to new locations. The purpose is to set up a front to effectively deter China.
The above six variables are driving China-U.S. military and security relations to a freezing point. According to current trends, the following three developments are likely to happen.
Small Hot War: “Two tigers cannot live on the same mountain”. At the moment there are two fuses: (1) The U.S. presence leads to miscalculation and accidental skirmishes, such as a clash in the waters around China. (2) The U.S. is determined to challenge China’s core interests, such as trampling the red line over the Taiwan issue and triggering a serious crisis and military confrontation.
New Cold War: Containment and blockade. (1) Military exchanges between China and the United States are completely suspended. (2) The U.S. side ramps up sanctions, tightens its military technical blockade, and builds a military cordon around China. (3) Differences over economy, trade, security, and ideology keep cropping up and escalating. (4) Competition between the two sides in multilateral international institutions intensifies.
Rebalance: Mutual self-restraint. Both sides patiently listen to each other’s security concerns, look for intermediate points, meet each other half way, seek more confidence-building measures, enhance military transparency, and promote more bilateral and multilateral arms control measures, etc.
So, which direction should we go?
The strategic competition between China and the United States will not be a replay of the US-USSR rivalry. Between China and the United States, there is no large-scale mutual invasion, no more ideological duels, no organization of coalitions against one another, no separate economic systems, and no military preparation for a strategic showdown. Therefore, although future strategic competition between China and the United States will be a “new normal”, neither side can afford the cost of complete confrontation.
I believe, even American hardliners do not expect a head-on collision with China. In an effort to prevent the two countries against slipping from strategic competition to decoupling, containment, conflict, confrontation, and even war, I suggest the following four steps.
First, keep exchanging strategic intentions. We’d like to ask: What is the U.S. strategic expectation of Sino-US strategic competition? What are the rules of the game? How to set the parameters of healthy competition and a stable relationship between China and the United States? What are the strategic objectives and intentions for “reshaping the U.S. military” and “making the US military strong again”?
Second, keep negotiating differences and contradictions. Both sides should avoid allowing individual cases to influence the whole relationship. They should maintain dialogue and consultation on defense expenditure, the Taiwan issue, “freedom of navigation” operations, alliance obligations, etc., and should work together to resolve and manage differences.
Third, build more crisis-management mechanisms, including diversified confidence-building mechanisms (CBMs). Both sides should make good use of the existing summit hotline, rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters, notification of major military activities, computer emergency response team (CERT), etc., and then explore the establishment of a risk management mechanism for the use of autonomous weapons, among others. For effective crisis management mechanisms, we might consider, under the framework of the China-US diplomatic security dialogue, the establishment of a “strategic stability dialogue” mechanism. It might cover nuclear policy and strategy, missile defense systems, cyber security, space security, and other sensitive issues, in the hope of replacing “mutually assured destruction” with a “mutual security guarantee”, easing the security dilemma, and avoiding falling into a vicious arms race.
Fourth, explore more security cooperation. The military-to-military relationship between China and the United States has taken on global significance far beyond the bilateral and regional dimensions. The two countries share common obligations and responsibilities on addressing global threats in the areas of international terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, cyber security, space development, etc. Concerted efforts to promote the gradual transformation of the international security system can become an important area of “high-end cooperation” between the two militaries. All the above will infuse more positive energy and positive connotation into China-U.S. military and security relations.
As Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi has said, despite elements of competition, China-U.S. ties are defined more by partnership than rivalry. Cooperation between China and the United States is bound to be win-win, while competition is not necessarily a lose-lose situation. Both sides can try to explore win-win competition to make the military relationship more stable and mature in competition and cooperation.