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Military Ties in Retreat

Jun 16, 2023
  • Zhong Yin

    Research Professor, Research Institute of Global Chinese and Area Studies, Beijing Language and Culture University

Interactions between the military leaders of China and the United States during the recent Shangri-La Dialogue show just how low the temperature has fallen in bilateral military ties. On the occasion, China’s new defense minister, Li Shangfu, who refused to go beyond a handshake with his U.S. counterpart, Lloyd Austin, met instead with the British, German and EU security policy chiefs.

Why has this happened? What is behind the chilly Sino-U.S. defense relationship — or the bilateral relationship in general? How will this negative state of affairs in the military domain affect the relationship in future? These are all relevant questions.

The first obstacle to a smooth two-way military relationship is the dispute over Taiwan. With the shift of its China policy toward a combination of coercion and containment, America has been increasingly resorting to the Taiwan issue as a pivotal axis of leverage. For China, the upgrading of U.S.-Taiwan military ties is especially provocative. In April, the U.S. government sent around 200 soldiers to Taiwan to provide military training, under the pretext of responding to the “fact” that Chinese fighter jets and warships simulated strikes on the island nation during a recent military drill.

The U.S. is also preparing for Ukraine-style military operations on Taiwan. On April 27, The U.S. Army Special Operations Command for the first time in this century initiated drills simulating operations on Taiwan, to “reflect a seismic shift for the command as it prepares for potential conflict against major military rivals.” China’s emergence constitutes “a true pacing challenge” to the U.S. under the latest U.S. National Defense Strategy.

Among other things, the U.S. and its allies regularly sail through and fly over the Taiwan Strait as an exercise in “freedom of navigation,” even though the world acknowledges that China considers Taiwan to be an integral part of its own territory and the surrounding waters part of its exclusive economic zone. On the same day that U.S. Defense Secretary Austin rebuked China for what he said was its unwillingness to sit down for talks, two warships from the U.S. and Canada sailed through the Taiwan Strait after transiting through the South China Sea. Clearly the Chinese minister’s cold shoulder conveyed his anger and discontent — not only over the U.S. military involvement but over the general lack of respect for China’s core national interests around Taiwan. 

The second obstacle is U.S. hostility, which has increasingly appeared in the Asia-Pacific in the guise of the Indo-Pacific Strategy, which is aimed at China.

The Shangri-La Dialogue provides a venue in which ministers can debate the region’s most pressing security challenges, engage in important bilateral talks and come up with fresh approaches together. However, U.S. actions have provoked animosity and division rather than inclusiveness and harmony.

Under the strategy, the Quad and AUKUS have been promoted in the direction of alienating China, not only economically and militarily but also politically and ideologically. In the name of “upholding peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific maritime domain” and “strongly opposing destabilizing or unilateral actions that seek to change the status quo by force or coercion,” the U.S. is trying to shift the blame to China for the tensions that the U.S. itself aroused. Under U.S. efforts, NATO has also extended its role in Asia, extending camp politics in the region.

Economically, the U.S. has been pushing Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the Netherlands to cooperate in a microchip war against China. Further, with U.S. disengagement from China in the economic field, more Western companies are moving away from China to Southeast Asia and India, and trade devoid of China has arisen widely. The U.S. is also trying to lead a new economic order in the region based on such pillars as “fair trade” and “supply chains,” incorporating not only its alliances in the region but also the developing nations of ASEAN and the Pacific Islands,  mainly through digital cooperation and infrastructure investment.

Politically China has been demonized as a country that breaks the “ruled-based” international order and one that is a potential aggressor, while the United States has been boosted as a fair arbiter and a beneficial stabilizer.   

Last but not least is America’s consistent, open hostility toward the Chinese military. To play up and exaggerate PLA’s strength as a threat has always been a promising enterprise in U.S. strategic circles. This past February, the U.S. shot down a Chinese weather balloon that had been thrown off course over the U.S. mainland, triggering a downward spiral of bilateral ties in the aftermath. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken responded, cautioning China that it violated U.S. sovereignty, and "this irresponsible act must never again occur.” 

In May, when Jake Sullivan, U.S. President Joe Biden’s national security adviser, met with China’s top diplomat, Wang Yi, in Vienna, both sides “recognized the need to move beyond the balloon incident that caused a pause in relations.” However, the situation around Taiwan and the Sino-U.S. relationship as a whole have not improved in the least. Instead it has continued deteriorating, right up to the Shangri-La Dialogue.

Most recently, the U.S. Navy released a video of what it called an “unsafe interaction” in the Taiwan Strait, where “a Chinese warship crossed in front of the U.S. destroyer in the sensitive waters.” In China’s eyes, the U.S. and Canada were deliberately provoking it with the rare joint sailing, and the measures taken by the Chinese military were “completely reasonable, legitimate, professional and safe.”

Given the facts above, one can see that the contradictions between the two sides run deep across all fields. The military stands at the top of high politics; therefore, lack of trust and a halt of military interactions indicates a very tense state of affairs in the bilateral relationship. The good news is that the two both agree that engagement and dialogue still count. A minimum level of crisis management should be set up to avoid a direct collision in the days to come. For this, the U.S. must take the first step. 

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