No troop visits. No joint press conference. The visit of the US Secretary of Defense James Mattis to China, the first ever since he took office 17 months ago, was “minimalist” in style, featuring only three conversations - two with his military counterparts and one with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
This is exactly what both sides wanted – open and honest dialogue, at a time when tension over trade is spiraling and military ties look unsustainable. Mattis told reporters before his visit that he wanted to “take measure” of China’s strategic ambitions after China positioned weaponry on islets in the South China Sea. China, too, can only be eager to find out to what extent the Trump administration has decided to use Taiwan to check the mainland. If Trump’s phone call to Tsai Ing-wen after was out of ignorance, then a series of bills passed since by Capitol Hill and signed by President Trump allowing mutual ship visits and exchanges of officials at all level between the US and Taiwan cannot be accidental.
Gone are the days when China proposed and the US agreed to establish a “new type of major power relationship”. However wrongfully a new US national strategy in January might have described China as a top “strategic competitor”, the US is right to admit that whatever China might be, it won’t become a liberal democracy as the US wishes.
The simplest questions are sometimes the most difficult to answer. When it comes to Sino-US relations, the real challenge is how to read the intention of the other side. In spite of frequent exchanges and multi-layered mechanisms for communication, even the most professional talks are sometimes shrouded in a mist of confusion. A “what do you want” kind of question is more likely to have a “what do you want” answer.
Such perplexity is mostly found in the South China Sea where tension is simmering to the extent that it looks like a typical “security dilemma” is in the making. China’s land reclamation is a response to that of some ASEAN claimants earlier, which was regarded by the US as a challenge to the status quo. The US navy’s increased FONOPs into the waters off the China-controlled islets were in turn taken by China as deliberate provocations. As a response, China increased defense deployment, which was then accused by the US as a further step in militarizing the whole South China Sea for its eventual control.
A cynical Chinese description of Sino-American relations is that “neither will it be too good nor too bad”. Not necessarily. Trade is traditionally taken for granted as the “ballast stone” in bilateral ties, but the recent development is just a reminder of how even the most resilient part of the China-US relations could become vulnerable in a manner that’s totally unexpected. The question is: will tension spill over to other areas?
A trade war, compared to a military conflict, can only be the lesser evil. If no news is good news, then the good news is that a China-US conflict doesn’t appear inevitable, at least for now. China’s position of “no conflict and no confrontation, mutual respect, cooperation, and win-win” towards the US has been consistent. Despite Mattis’ harsh criticism of China at the Shangri-La Dialogue, he was careful enough to strike a balance. He said that the U.S. would continue to pursue a constructive results-oriented relationship with China and to cooperate wherever possible. He even recognized the “Indo-Pacific” order which, widely taken as a thinly-veiled strategy against China, has a role for China.
The problem is there are few areas where the two militaries can cooperate. Since 2000, the US congress has restricted US military exchanges with the PLA except in humanitarian areas for fear that such exchanges might contribute to the PLA’s fighting capabilities and “create a national security risk”. This is narcissism. The awesome progress of the PLA in the last two decades demonstrates that PLA’s strength doesn’t depend on its limited and often symbolic exchanges with the US military. At the 18th congress of the Chinese Communist Party, a PLA road map with milestones was unveiled: to become mechanized by 2020, modernized by 2035, and first-class military by the mid-century.
The true value of China-US military exchanges, above all, is confidence-building and crisis management. For China, the significance of participating in the US-led Rimpac Exercise in which the Chinese naval vessels were only allowed to participate in salvage, piracy, and natural disaster operations is more political than military. It is a goodwill gesture from the US, but also a Chinese effort to indicate that it wants to “cooperate where possible”.
The fact that China still invited Mattis to visit China after the US disinvited China to attend Rimpac 2018 demonstrates both goodwill and self-confidence on the Chinese part. One good turn deserves another. In the wake of Mattis’s departure, a Chinese spokesman announced that Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe has accepted the invitation of James Mattis to visit the US this year. This is good news, especially at a difficult time.