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Positive Progress Made in Sino-US Military Ties

Nov 24 , 2014
  • Zhang Junshe

    Researcher, PLA Naval Military Academic Research Institute


Chinese President Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama reached landmark agreements in their latest meeting earlier this month on an array of issues that had remained sources of tension between the world’s two largest economies. Of these agreements, the consensus on the need of building mutual trust between the two countries’ militaries is of the most urgent significance.

Between November 11th and 12th, Obama went to Beijing for the Asia Pacific Economic Leaders’ Meeting and his second state visit to China. In a flurry of candid and in-depth talks, Xi and Obama exchanged views on Sino-U.S. relations as well as major international and regional issues of common concern. The two leaders reiterated their consensus reached last June at the Annenberg Estate meeting on developing a new model of major-power relationship between China and the United States.

They pledged to reduce the risks of military accidents between the two countries by establishing a mechanism of early notification of major military operations and setting guidelines of behavior on naval and air military encounters.

Xi said that China and the U.S. enjoy extensive common interests and a solid foundation for cooperation. Both sides should extend and deepen practical economic and trade cooperation, military relations, anti-terrorism procedures, law enforcement, energy, health care, and infrastructure to inject new impetus into the bilateral relationship, he said.

The Chinese president emphasized that China and the U.S. should build a new model of military relationship conforming to the new model of major-power relationship. He noted that since the two countries’ defense authorities had signed memorandums of understanding for establishing a mutual notification mechanism on major military activities and a code of safe conduct on naval and air military encounters, the two sides should take further steps to deepen communication, mutual trust and cooperation. He said China is willing to work with the U.S. to keep promoting top-level exchanges, regular dialogues, and joint exercises and training between the two militaries.

The establishment of mutual trust mechanisms between their militaries is of vital importance to the two countries, representing the two presidents’ strategic vision and wisdom. These new mechanisms can help both sides to know each other’s strategic intentions and reduce the possibilities of misunderstanding and misjudgment and thus lower the risks of military friction.

Under the mutual notification mechanism, the two sides will notify each other prior to major military actions they are about to take – such as large-scale exercises – with regard to the time, location, purpose and the number of personnel involved. The code of safe conduct stipulates the ways both militaries greet each other and how they should behave when meeting in the high seas.

Since last year, there have been positive signs of development in the relations between the two militaries. The first sign was the increased exchanges on the top level. In response to his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan’s visit to the US in August last year, U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel visited China in April to become the first foreign official to set feet on the deck of the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. General Fang Fenghui, PLA chief of general staff, visited the US in May. General Wu Shengli, Chinese naval commander who had visited the US in September last year, led a military delegation to attend the 21st “International Seapower Symposium, ISS” in Newport, Rhode Island in September this year, marking the first presence of a Chinese naval leader at the forum. U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan W. Greenert visited China two times in the first half of this year. In April, he led a team to attend the the 14th Conference of the  Western Pacific Naval Symposium  (WPNS) hosted by China and in July he visited Chinese naval fleets including the Liaoning, Type 056 frigates, submarines and missile boats.

The second positive sign was the extended practical cooperation. In August last year, the 14th Chinese escort navy fleet joined a U.S. fleet to stage an anti-pirates maneuver in the Gulf of Aden. In September, a Chinese fleet called on Hawaii and took part in a joint maritime rescuing exercise with the U.S. Navy. In November, troops from both countries went on a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief (HADR) exercise in Hawaii, marking the first time that PLA soldiers have set foot on American soil for military drills. In February this year, the Chinese army took part in the “Golden Cobra” exercises hosted by the U.S. and Thailand. In June, the Chinese Navy sent four warships to join in the “Rim of the Pacific” joint naval exercises for the first time.

Third, more consultations and dialogues were held between the two militaries. On October 16, PLA Deputy Chief of General Staff Wang Guanzhong and U.S. Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, Christine E. Wormuth jointly presided over the 15th Sino-U.S. Defense Consultation at the Pentagon. The two militaries also held a work conference of Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) and carried out 10-odd rounds of talks for establishing the “major moves” notification mechanism and the code of conduct on military encounters.

In the future, the two countries’ military forces should conduct more high-level exchanges, regular dialogues and joint military drills. They should also strengthen cooperation in humanitarian aid, disaster reduction, anti-terrorism and anti-pirates moves and other non-traditional security efforts.

Although encouraging progress has been made in bilateral relations, the military exchanges and cooperation between China and the U.S. are still on a low level. There is still a long way to go before a new model of military relationship is established, for the “three major obstacles” still stand in the way, namely Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan, U.S. warships and aircraft’s frequent reconnaissance moves close to Chinese coastlines and the American laws restricting Sino-U.S. military exchanges. The U.S. should respect China’s concerns on these issues and take effective measures to settle the problems.

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