General Martin Dempsey, US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has just concluded his visit to China, which has been lauded by both sides as a success.
During his visit, he toured an army aviation regiment; talked to senior officers at the National Defense University and delivered a speech at the Army Aviation Academy. He discussed with his counterpart General Fang Fenghui, Chief of General Staff for the PLA, and he was met by the Chinese President Xi Jinping, an honor that is only accorded to the most distinguished foreign military visitors.
All this demonstrates the importance that the Chinese attach to General Dempsey, but also to the most important bilateral military relationship in the world.
The Sino-American military relationship has not been short of twists and turns. Apart from the outstanding “three obstacles” in the relations – US arms sale to Taiwan, US reconnaissance in the exclusive economic zone of China and legal barriers on the US side and limited exchanges between the US and the Chinese armed forces – recent years have also witnessed an enhanced sophistication in the relationship. This is due to the “rebalancing” of the US armed forces in the Asia-pacific and the somewhat contradictary American actions on such issues like the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea.
The good news is that both sides have thus far agreed to disagree, and they concur to strengthen strategic mutual trust. Cooperation is top of the agenda.
In the areas that have been identified by the two militaries for cooperation, i.e, counter-piracy, anti-terrorism, pandemic disease control, environmental protection, humanitarian aid and disaster relief; positive efforts have already been made. Last year, among frequent exchanges at the highest military level, the two Navys conducted a joint exercise in the Gulf of Aden, and the two armies conducted a table top exercise on humanitarian aid and disaster relief in Sichuan Province. During the US Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus’ visit to China in November 2012, he extended an olive branch by inviting the Chinese navy to attend RIMPAC 2014, a regularized multilateral exercise in the waters off Hawaii. His Chinese host accepted the invitation with pleasure.
Perhaps one of the most important achievements is the visit itself. From time to time, the inter-military ties between China and the US were cut off as a result of grave incidents like the US-led bombing on the Chinese embassy in the former Yugoslavia, and the collision of the Chinese and US aircraft over China’s exclusive economic zone, and above all, the repeated US arm sales to Taiwan. All these incidents cost the military relationship dearly, to the extent that it takes at least one year for the two countries to resume dialogue. The fact that the two militaries can now visit and talk to each other on a regular basis is a positive signal to the world that the derailed relationship is back on track and is moving in the right direction.
Let’s hope that this trend continues.
Zhou Bo is with Center on China-America Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science