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2015 Sino-U.S. Military Relationship and Beyond

Jan 08 , 2016
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

What is the best hope for the Sino-American relationship? The answer: manageable. A major-power relationship, in spite of its importance, is intrinsically volatile and competitive. Rather than gauging how good it will be, it is more important to fathom how less risky it could become. In the year 2015, the Sino-American bilateral relationship unsurprisingly has swung between resilience and vulnerability.

The military relationship became more noteworthy in 2015, in that it includes obvious growth in two opposite directions, i.e., more Confidence Building Measures and rising tension between the two militaries in the South China Sea. On the former, a new notification of major military crises is added to mechanism of Notification of Major Military Activities; and the negotiation for an annex for Air to Air Encounter under the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Maritime and Air Encounter is finally completed. In April, PLA Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui had a video-telephonic conversation with his counterpart, General Martin Dempsey. This is the first video teleconference system between the two countries. In October, the USS Lassen had close-in sail near Zhubi and Meiji reefs while Chinese destroyer Lanzhou and the fuel ship Taizhou stood by, but the Chinese and American ships have kept a safe distance in line with the procedures in Code of Unplanned Encounter at Sea that both navies have agreed to observe.

New areas of cooperation are also explored. There is fresh progress is the exchanges between the two armies. Two reciprocal humanitarian and disaster relief exercises by army soldiers were held alternatively in Haikou and Seattle. This not only boosts mutual confidence, but brings hope that the two most powerful nations could use their joint strength and experience to help regions too often stricken by natural disasters. China has also accepted an American invitation to send naval vessels to attend RIMPAC-2016, an exercise led by the US that included over 20 other nations. Although in RIMPAC 2014 the Chinese navy was only allowed to participate in humanitarian and disaster relief and counter-piracy, the continued invitation from the US is an indication that despite of restrictions from the US Congress, the American military still wishes to continue exchanges with PLA wherever possible.

The South China Sea issue is looming large. The US claims that it won’t take sides and doesn’t have a position on sovereignty of the islands and reefs in the South China Sea. But with the USS Lassen sailing and a B-52 flying near Chinese islands and reefs, and deployment of P-8 Poseidon in Singapore, America has apparently come out from behind the screen.

It remains to see how the US would keep its promise to have regular patrols in the South China Sea. US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said the US will continue to fly, sail and operate in the South China Sea. If indeed this happens, China can point out, as it had done, that it is America that is militarizing the South China Sea. Another uncertainty is how China may react. China may feel it has to act tough, in part to answer to public opinion that is increasingly shaping the decision-making of China’s foreign policy. As a result, both sides will have less room to maneuver and the situation will inescapably become more risky. The truth is, no matter how useful confidence-building measures are, tactical arrangements only help but can never resolve strategic issues.

Arms sales to Taiwan, an old issue that haunts the Sino-American relationship, returns again. Over years the US seems to believe that it can balance its arms sales and Chinese furor and that the Chinese, no matter how angry they are in the beginning, will eventually calm down. But this time China has found a game changer: to sanction American companies that sell arms to Taiwan and do business with the mainland at same time. It remains to see how and to what extent China will use such an instrument. But this could prove to be a most lethal weapon of China against American arms sales in the future.

Looking beyond 2015 into 2016, the world doesn’t seem rosy at all. The catchword is disorder. ISIS-led terrorism is raging, but so are the efforts of counter-terrorism. The UN has called for combating ISIS by all necessary means. Could this lead to Sino-American military cooperation in counter-terrorism? Indeed China and the US differ in the definition of terrorism, but they should have no difference in combating ISIS, which has beheaded both Chinese and American citizens. Also, China has announced to set up a logistical support station in Djibouti. Could this be a starting point, not only for China’s military presence in the Indian Ocean, but also an opportunity for China and the West, and particularly the US, to cooperate militarily in Africa?

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