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Delicate State of China-US Security Cooperation

Feb 23 , 2011

Cooperation on security matters is an important dimension of the relationships between China and the United States. From noticeably cooling in the aftermath of the spy plane incident in 2001, the two countries found new momentum to collaborate in the wake of the 9-11 attacks. At times security issues can become the main element shaping China-US relations. So it is important for the countries to continue their cooperation in this area.

However the collaboration is not always easy to sustain because security matters can have profound implications in political and military areas. Since the end of 2009, China and the US have clashed over a series of issues ranging from tyre and steel trade to US arms sales to Taiwan, affecting the level of the relationship in commercial areas as well as cooperation on security issues. Also, China-US military exchanges, resumed last spring and gradually developed in tandem with the overall bilateral relationship, was interrupted again. The two sides took about nine months to reset their military relations. It was until last October when Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie met his US counterpart Secretary Robert Gates in Hanoi, the two militaries reached agreement on the long-postponed visit by Secretary Gates to China.

The just concluded visit by Secretary Gate to Beijing is productive. The two sides agreed to continue their cooperation on anti-terrorism, peace-keeping, humanitarian rescue and other non-traditional security areas, and to make progress on high-level exchanges and institutional dialogues and consultations in the first half of 2011. In addition, the two militaries even announced to set up a working group to study ways of building a firm framework for continuing talks. It seems that the two militaries are seeking ways to repair their relations, but even though the fragility in China-US security ties is still obvious.

First, China-US security cooperation is easily disturbed. On several occasions joint military exchanges have stopped for various reasons. From the Chinese perspective, it cannot continue military exchanges with the US if the latter challenges its “core interests” such as Taiwan and Tibet. For the US side, it cannot exclude the possibility of non-cooperation if self-interest groups lobby against exchanges with the Chinese military. On other occasions, the bilateral relationship has been damaged by incidents such as plane or ship collisions. While history shows there is little predictability in the security relationship, there is a wider imperative to improve the collaboration.

Secondly, there is doubt about the effectiveness of the cooperation. Since China and the US have different approaches to dealing with international security affairs, they sometimes cannot reach a consensus in practice. For example on the North Korean and Iranian nuclear issues, China adopts a more balanced stance based on the principal of regional stability but the US’s position is more  aggressive in its warnings. Thus, although China and the US do have common interests on issues such as nuclear nonproliferation, anti-terrorism, etc., their strategies in achieving the same desired result are not united because of different priorities. The two countries ought to make efforts to consolidate and expand their common interests and, more importantly, merge their common interests with common actions.

1. Consolidating and Expanding Common Interests
China and the US have a lot of common interests because the new international environment provides more chances for them to cooperate. Unlike relations between the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War, major powers in the era of globalization find that they can benefit more from cooperation rather than from confrontation. China in the late 1970s made economic development a prime goal of its national strategy and has not wavered since. On the other hand, the US, although over-emphasizing military action in certain periods, has recently started to focus on stressing domestic development, a point demonstrated by the latest National Security Strategy. So while neither China nor the US wants military confrontation with each other, their common philosophy is to reduce elements of global and regional instability, although occasionally their definition of the “elements” may not be totally in line with each other’s view.
Globalization provides a broader stage for China and the US to cooperate, but it is too simplistic to expect globalization by itself to keep the two on the same path.  There has been a clear slowdown in China-US cooperation since late last year. This trend demonstrates that without careful guidance the deep-rooted differences between them in geo-political, ideological, economic and many other aspects can disrupt the still fragile momentum of cooperation. While bilateral ties face difficulties, it is in their own mutual interest and the world’s that the two governments stay on course with their broader relationships. They must frequently review and reaffirm their commitment to cooperate globally, regionally and bilaterally.

2. Converting Common Interests to Common Actions
China and the US face substantial challenges in how to consolidate their cooperation. In reality, their security relationship is rather special. It is different from the ties between the US and Japan or those between the US and Sweden. China and the US are at once both partners and competitors, pursuing cooperation while never abandoning hedging the other side. Therefore, they each have to consider in the first place how to balance the two sides of their security relationship. It may not be realistic currently to expect them to get rid of the hedging strategy, but they should take effective measures to restrain competition so that their cooperation on global and regional security issues will not be hindered.
Secondly, China and the US have not reached a consensus on how to share the costs of their security cooperation. After reflecting on the over-stretched strategy of counter-terrorism, the US, caught in the throes of the global financial crisis, is encouraging more countries to share global responsibilities. China, maintaining double-digit growth during 2003-2007, is regarded by the US as having the capability to pay more in international affairs, although in the US-driven global partnership network China has not been regarded as a multi-dimensional partner like the United Kingdom or Japan. On the other hand, China wants to contribute more with a deeper involvement in international affairs, but it should be for China to decide in the context of its capability whether to shoulder more responsibilities on a specific issue. Thus, China and the US often have different views on some specific “responsibilities,” and that spreads to China-US cooperation on security issues..
Thirdly, China and the US should make better and effective use of institutions analyzing security issues. Institution building is a weaker aspect of China-US security relations, but there are some, including the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), and other formal arrangements between the nations’ military and affiliated departments. While conflicts continue to disrupt military exchanges between the two countries, China and the US should still be able to find room to stabilize and deepen security cooperation, for example, to control at multiple levels their discussions on regional and global security breakdowns. By providing tangible proposals or reports on specific topics, such institutions can build a basis of trust and sustainable platforms for bilateral cooperation.

3. Properly Handling “Core Interests”
The difficulties for China and the US to convert political willingness of cooperation into tangible action reflect to some extent the low strategic trust between them. There are various reasons for the distrust or mistrust. Some are related to structural problems between a rising power and an existing superpower, and some are just because of different policy priorities, economic conditions, and isolated incidents, among others. China and the US should adroitly handle their differences, preventing technical problems from being raised to weaken strategic ties.

In dealing with the differences and conflicts, the so-called “core interests” issues must be given special attention. “Core interests” is a new phrase emerging in China-US relations, and the content and definition of the concept are still open to debate. In spite of this, properly handling the “core interests” issues is crucial to maintaining and pushing forward security cooperation, because those issues are actually parts of the parameters that one country takes to judge the other side’s strategic intentions. Therefore, unless there is respect and mutual “core interests” are taken care of, China and the US cannot carry out substantial security cooperation.

On the whole, China and the US must face up to the problems in their security cooperation. It should be noted that the relationship is, to some degree, like a boat sailing against the tide: neither moving forward nor slipping back.

Wu Chunsi is a Senior Research Fellow, Shanghai Institutes for International Studies

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