“The small boat of friendship tends to tip over” is not only an Internet catchphrase, but also a vivid description of the past China-U.S. military relationship, which witnessed an on-again-off-again cycle. However, in 2016, though there were signs of increased frictions between the two militaries, military exchanges did not stop and China-U.S. military friend“ship” has sailed more steadily.
On the one hand, China-U.S. military frictions focus on the South China Sea and Taiwan issues and the U.S. introduction of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system into the ROK. On the South China Sea issue, the U.S. side has increased criticisms of China, and has intensified military presence and “freedom of navigation” (FON) operations, rendering verbal and physical frictions. In 2016, Harry Harris (Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command), Ashton Carter (Secretary of Defense), John Richardson (Chief of Naval Operation), Debora Lee James (Air Force Secretary), and other high-ranking U.S. officers and officials voiced their criticism of the Chinese side, hyped up “militarization”, and threatened to suppress the said establishment of the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the South China Sea and the construction of the Huangyan Island (Scarborough Shoal). Then, U.S. three “FON” operations, conducted on Jan 30, May 10 and Oct 21, forced Chinese Navy vessels and warplanes to identify, verify, warn and expel the U.S. warships. Since March 2016, the U.S. Navy has sent strike groups and destroyers to the South China Sea to conduct patrols and drills, causing several “close encounters” between Chinese and U.S. aircraft and ships. Additionally, the U.S. increased close-in reconnaissance activities, leading to the unmanned undersea vehicle incident in December.
On the Taiwan issue, on March 10, the U.S. Department of State announced the sale of two frigates to Taiwan for $190 million. On May 16, the U.S. House of Representatives passed HCR 88, which reaffirms the so-called “six assurances” as one of the cornerstones of U.S.-Taiwan relations. On December 23, President Obama signed and enacted the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017, which contains some sections promoting high-level military exchanges between the U.S. and Taiwan. Notably, on Decr 2, President-elect Donald Trump answered a phone call from Tsai Ing-wen. On the THAAD issue, the U.S. side has obstinately pressed ahead the deployment of the missile-defense system in South Korea, undermining China-U.S. strategic stability.
On the other hand, the two militaries have managed to continue exchanges and cooperation. For high-level visits, U.S. Chief of Naval Operation Adm. John Richardson and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley visited China in July and August respectively. General Fang Fenghui (Chief of the CMC Joint Staff Department) and PLA Navy Commander Adm. Wu Shengli had video telephone conversations respectively with Joseph Dunford Jr. (Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff) and Adm. Richardson in May and January.
For institutionalized exchanges, three inter-sessional meetings of the Strategic Security Dialogue (SSD) were held in 2016, and the formal SSD was conducted during the eighth China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED), showing a frequent and smooth high-level communication. In January 2016 and January 2017, the 11th and 12nd Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) proceeded as scheduled, both confirming the positive momentum sustained in the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship over the past year, and setting a direction for continued success into the next year. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) working group and plenary meetings were held in May and November, focusing at the operational level on risk control and management and exchanging experience in previous naval cooperation. Further, military medicine exchanges are expanding, and China is becoming the “home court”. For example, the 18th military anaesthesia and resuscitation conference was conducted in Wuhan in April, drawing experts from America and other countries; a medical seminar was held in Shanghai in June under the framework of the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, with about 60 participants from 15 countries including the U.S. The two military health departments agreed to conduct the first workshop on acupuncture in 2017 in China.
For functional exchanges, Chinese naval hospital ship Peace Ark arrived in Hawaii on January 9 for a 3-day technical stop, the fourth time it has made a stop in Hawaii. A Chinese naval fleet comprised of the guided-missile frigate Yancheng, the guided-missile frigate Daqing and the comprehensive supply ship Taihu had a four-day friendly visit to San Diego from Dec 6 to 9. The flagship USS Blue Ridge of the Seventh Fleet of the U.S. Navy arrived at Wusong military port in Shanghai on May 6 for a five-day visit. The guided-missile destroyer USS Benfold (DDG-65) of the United States Pacific Fleet paid a five-day port call to Qingdao, Shandong Province, in August. Adm. Scott Swift, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, arrived in Qingdao to participate in various activities. At the end of the visit, the USS Benfold also carried out a joint exercise with the guided-missile frigate Daqing on ship formation movement and maritime search and rescue.
For joint exercises, a PLA Navy task group consisting of five ships took part in the RIMPAC-2016 and conducted main gun firing, maritime search and rescue, replenishment in navigation, anti-piracy, submarine assistance and life saving, and tactical maneuver with other navies. For the third time in three years, the PLA Army soldiers joined their Australian and U.S. counterparts in Exercise Kowari held in Australia from Aug 26 to Sept 9. Bilaterally, the Chinese PLA Southern Theater Command Army and the U.S. Army Pacific conducted a joint HADR exercise in Kunming, Yunnan Province. Altogether 223 officers and soldiers, it consisted of an academic exchange, command post training and a live-troop drill.
So, maintaining resilience in difficulties is the most prominent feature in 2016 and a “new normal” of China-U.S. military relations. The reasons why the two militaries can still have benign interactions despite frictions might be as follows: (i) American self-perception as a world leader and Chinese strategic culture of caring deeply about all peoples have driven the two countries to pursue regional coexistence and common peace; (ii) the political will and the sense of historic responsibility of both heads of state have driven them to pursue a new answer to the so-called “Thucydides’s trap”, and to build a new model of major-country and military relations featuring no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect and win-win through cooperation; (iii) highly-interwoven national interests and unbearable costs of conflicts have driven the two countries to pursue a peaceful and stable international environment, so as to concentrate on domestic development; and (iv) the common needs to deal with global security threats have driven the two militaries to engage in more practical cooperation. Undoubtedly, the “three obstacles” of U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, close-in reconnaissance and discriminatory laws are still existing. Fortunately, in recent telephone talks between President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump, both are willing to expand cooperation and believe China and the U.S. can elevate bilateral relations to new heights through joint efforts, thus setting a positive note for the future military-to-military relationship. Promoted by top-level policies, the two sides should maintain close communication, increase practical cooperation, and manage differences and contradictions. In this way, the small boat of military friendship might turn into a giant ship, steadily sailing along the big trends of China-U.S. cooperation.