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Sino-US Military Relationship: Vulnerability vs Resilience

Jul 31 , 2014
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science

The list of initiatives decided at the 2014 Sino-US Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) strategic track is longer than that of last year. The 116 outcomes, compared with 91 outcomes last year, are impressive not only because of the progress made, but also because of the scope of the issues to be addressed by these important countries.

A lot of attention has been given to progress in the military field since the last S&ED. What really raises eyebrows is the expression of a “new type of military relations,” which is a step higher than the “new level of military relations” coined at last year’s S&ED. It is also the first time that such an expression has appeared in writing. Besides calling for deepening cooperation in counter-piracy, maritime search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, both sides affirmed a mutual commitment to the management of crises and prevention of accidental events.

This is good news, especially after senior American officials unleashed an avalanche of criticism about the PLA being “assertive” in the East China Sea and “salami-slicing” in the South China Sea. It looks like the pendulum has swung back and the US has decided to correct itself.

The Sino-American relationship is intrinsically imbued with two distinctive characteristics – vulnerability and resilience. The vulnerability is obvious, but the resilience is often overlooked. For example, in April 2001, a collision between an American EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter killed a Chinese pilot. No matter how appalling the incident was, soon after the US government delivered its “letter of two sorries,” the Chinese government released the American crew. The crisis was basically resolved, in only 11 days. This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore appeared to be very much “soured” by the spat between participants from China and the US and Japan. However, the US later announced that four Chinese ships would attend RIMPAC 2014, a multilateral exercise hosted by the US Navy off of Hawaii. And the size of the Chinese participating task force is second to that of the US Navy.

Such seemingly contradictory phenomena reflect a strong resilience and even a kind of maturity in the relationship between the two major powers. That is, if discord is unavoidable, you do what you can to avoid it from becoming a crisis.

The resilience between China and the US has been sustained, first of all, by dialogue. There are over 90 dialogues of all sorts between the two countries, and quite a few of them are at the military-level. Even the S&ED has a security dialogue. The defense and security dialogues can provide a timely exchange of views and are therefore critically important. They help avoid unnecessary surprises and miscalculations and should be encouraged by all means.

Cooperation between the two militaries has thus far been confined to “practical areas,” such as counter-piracy, maritime search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. There are twelve areas that are restricted by a paranoid American Congress for fear that the PLA could benefit more than the US military from the interactions. But in recent years, more bilateral and multilateral exercises are held in “practical areas.” This is a great step forward. The US could continue inviting China for multilateral exercises, such as Cobra Gold and RIMPAC 2014 and accept PLA’s greater involvement. Likewise, the PLA could invite the US military to observe its exercises and visit more military facilities.

The real challenge in the major power relationship is not how good it will be, but the degree to which it could present less risk. Right now, China and the US are discussing a mechanism for notifying each other of major military activities and rules of behavior for air and maritime encounters. The bad news is that the progress is slow; the good news is that the commitment is reaffirmed. Another healthy development, according to the S&ED, is that the US coast guard and PRC maritime law enforcement agency will be included in future discussions on rules for air and maritime behavior.

No region is more dangerous than the seas in the Western Pacific. Unplanned encounters between naval ships and aircraft are not rare, especially between Chinese naval ships and aircraft, and those of the US and Japan. Fortunately on 22 April, 2014, 21 states unanimously voted for a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) in Tsingtao. CUES offers safety procedures, a basic communications plan and maneuvering instructions when naval ships or naval aircraft of two states meet unexpectedly at sea. It helps reduce miscalculations and the chance of a conflict.

CUES is the greatest achievement we have had in recent years, in terms of crisis management in the West Pacific. It should be observed in earnest. There should be training exercises so that officers and sailors can become familiar with the rules. This is exceedingly important for the Chinese and American navies, whose ships often get dangerously close to each other.

Zhou Bo is an honorary fellow with Center of China-American Defense Relations, Academy of Military Science.

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