The Pentagon recently decided to pause the expansion of mil-to-mil exchanges with China, delaying a decision until a Pentagon-sought U.S.-China agreement on rules for encounters between warplanes can be reached. Some Members of Congress strongly encouraged that action. The arguments against expansion were that the risks of technology transfer, the potential for the Chinese to decipher U.S. strategies and thereby embolden them, and not wanting to legitimize a communist regime by allowing it to work with a democracy such as the United States more than warranted halting the expansion of exchanges, and questioned the wisdom of the exchanges in general. Those in favor of continuing and expanding the exchanges say that cooperation and competition characterize the new security environment, that it is in the best interests of both U.S. and China to find areas of agreement, that vetting processes and technology transfer controls can be used to minimize risks, and overall improved and expanded communication between the two nations is in the best interests of U.S. national security. If this is 1985 and we were in the midst of an ideologically centered Cold War both arguments might be persuasive. That not being the case though, the need to develop strategy within the realistic context of a globalized world becomes imperative and – while there may be strategic good reason for this particular pause – in general, that means working with China.
Though it apparently does not fit into the world view of nouveau Cold Warriors, the admittedly easier days of and the clarity provided by the ideologically opposed NATO and Warsaw Pact memberships regarding who was friend and who was foe are gone. The ideological struggle between democracy and communism was a false dichotomy in any case. The real ideological struggle was between capitalism and communism, and capitalism won hands down, including in China. A 2014 Pew poll showed the Chinese people even more supportive of capitalism than Americans and Western Europeans. Capitalist, free market ties between the U.S. and China made China second only to Canada in the 2014 list of top ten U.S. trade partners. Bilateral political and economic relations between China and democratic countries within Europe, Canada and even India are growing as well, sometimes even more rapidly and broadly than with the United States.
Soviet communism of “then” is not the same as Chinese communism “now.” Chinese authoritarianism continues, but were the United States not to work with authoritarian countries, it would have few countries to work with at all in the Middle East. Though the United States would prefer to work with democracies, Iraq and Afghanistan has demonstrated the perils of pushing democratization in countries perhaps not ready or even eager for such, with the value of “stability” increasingly recognized. Interestingly, the same 2014 Pew poll showed an undercurrent of unease with the Chinese public with conditions in China today, with complaints about inflation, inequality and corruption, indicating the Chinese communist government is not without domestic “stress.”
Vigilance to prevent technology transfer is always the prudent course. In mil-to-mil exchanges the issues focus on Chinese access to U.S. ships provides opportunities for the Chinese to hack into U.S. systems, plant computer viruses, and better understand U.S. strategy – identifying weaknesses – thus emboldening Chinese actions. To assume that U.S. Navy personnel have not considered the technology risks and cannot or have not aptly addressed them in advance of ship visits seems to underestimate U.S. personnel. In fact, it can be argued that ship visits provide opportunities for the U.S. to show things it wants seen and discuss topics it wants discussed, as a form of deterrence.
China and the U.S. will have disagreements in the future, likely over a multiplicity of overlapping interests and issues. There is also an increasing number of issues where it is in the best interests of both countries to work together ranging from North Korea, transnational drug crime, counter-piracy and the sustainability of the space environment, to international finance, food and climate change. It is therefore in both countries interests to find ways to work through issues in non-kinetic ways. Attempts at isolation, and consequently dehumanization and the creation of a stereotypical “enemy” as during the Cold War, are not just ineffective but counterproductive.
On the side of continuing to expand mil-to-mil exchanges is the premise that the best way to gauge someone’s intentions is through face-to-face dialogue. Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey said it best in 2014 in a joint press conference after meeting with his counterpart, Chinese Gen. Fang Fenghui, the chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army. According to General Dempsey, Chinese participation in the Rim of the Pacific naval exercise “fosters and sustains cooperative relationships, which of course, help avoid miscalculations and prevent conflict.” This is too important a goal to put at risk due to Cold War thinking.
The U.S. wants China to agree on rules for encounters between warplanes as a condition for continuing expansion of the mil-to-mil exchanges, as part of efforts to clarify rules for situations with the potential for rapid conflict escalation. (Ironically, it is the United States that is balking at similar, nonbinding rules of conduct in space, while it is China and Russia pushing for a treaty in that area.) Because it is expansion of mil-to-mil exchanges that is being reconsidered, not the exchanges already established, this may be an effective form of leveraging if the Chinese Navy feels it receives significant benefits from these exchanges, as we hope they will, and press internally for action in that regard. Cooperation politically empowers Chinese individuals and institutions who are stakeholders in Chinese policy to be more favorably inclined toward the United States. Cooperation generally creates interests that could inhibit aggressive or reckless behavior, as opposed to Chinese policy being untethered to any obligations, interest or benefits it might obtain through cooperation with the United States.
If the Pentagon decided that the need for the agreement on rules for encounters between warplanes outweighs the benefits of expanded mil-to-mil engagements, then this “pause” makes strategic sense. If, however, this “pause” is bowing to a Cold War mentality seeking to isolate China, and the first of more “pullbacks” in mil-to-mil engagements, the results will be not just counterproductive, but dangerous because, as General Dempsey added in his 2014 remarks with General Fang, “the global maritime environment is simply too large, and too complex for any one nation.”