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U.S.-China Military Relations: The Weakest Link

Mar 09 , 2011

The Joint Statement released during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s January 2011 visit to the United States affirmed that “a healthy, stable, and reliable military-to-military relationship is an essential part of President Obama’s and President Hu’s shared vision for a positive, cooperative, and comprehensive U.S.-China relationship.”  Moreover, both sides agreed on “the need for enhanced and substantive dialogue and communication at all levels: to reduce misunderstanding, misperception, and miscalculation; to foster greater understanding and expand mutual interest; and to promote the healthy, stable, and reliable development of the military-to-military relationship.”

A sustained and dependable military-to-military relationship brings mutual benefits that serve both U.S. and Chinese interests.  When contacts and dialogue between the two militaries are suspended, both sides incur costs. The absence of communications increases the risks and dangers of an incident or accident that could derail the overall bilateral relationship, and makes it more difficult to defuse tensions and deescalate in a crisis. The U.S. is not alone in worrying about the possibility that a collision between U.S. and Chinese warships or airplanes could trigger a political crisis and even escalate to a broader military conflict.  In an interview with the Chinese media last December, Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie said that a war "which involves the whole country" is impossible at the moment, but there is nevertheless a possibility that a mishap or accident might ignite regional conflicts.  More generally, frequent suspension of the bilateral military relationship hampers shared U.S. and Chinese objectives of building mutual trust and confidence, and impedes cooperation on important regional and global security issues.

At the December 2010 Consultative Talks, the U.S. proposed a framework for the military-to-military relationship that is based on six guiding principles: mutual respect, mutual trust, reciprocity, mutual interest, continuous dialogue, and mutual risk reduction.  The PLA has agreed to discuss these principles with the goal of reaching an understanding on their meaning and how they can be achieved. This is a positive and important step forward, but it is not enough.

More must be done to promote a better relationship between the U.S. and Chinese militaries.  In the maritime domain, the two navies should seek to build cooperative capacity to combat threats to sea lanes that are posed by terrorism, piracy, smuggling, pollution, and proliferation.  Plans to conduct joint bilateral humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises, postponed due to China’s anger over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, should be resurrected.  Canceled junior and midlevel officer exchanges and general military cultural exchanges should also be rescheduled.  Coordination on military activities in third countries such as peacekeeping should be established.  Developing common views and approaches to international security challenges, where possible, should also be on the agenda.

Being more forthcoming with each other about military capabilities, intentions and doctrine is also essential to reduce misperception and build strategic trust.  In that regard, Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ proposal to launch a strategic security dialogue that covers nuclear, missile defense, space and cyber issues as part of the annual Strategic and Economic Dialogue is significant.  In each of these areas, fears of the other side’s intentions are contributing to instability and competition.  For example, China worries that the United States is seeking to neutralize its nuclear deterrent through reliance on a combination of conventional long-range precision strike weapons and missile defense systems.  Chinese steps to make its nuclear arsenal more effective and survivable are arousing U.S. fears that China has plans to dramatically increase the number of its nuclear warheads and may adopt a posture that is at variance with its no-first-use commitments.

The Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review, released last year, emphasized the need for the U.S. to maintain strategic stability with both Russia and China.  This suggests that the U.S. at least implicitly accepts mutual deterrence and vulnerability with China, as it does with Russia. Against this background, it would be mutually beneficial for the two militaries to discuss their respective perspectives on U.S.-China strategic stability, which is defined roughly as a relationship in which neither side has the opportunity or incentive to destroy all of their opponent’s nuclear forces. In exchange for greater Chinese transparency about its nuclear capabilities and doctrine, and self-imposed caps on its nuclear arsenal, the U.S. could consider technological constraints on missile defense, similar to those explored with Russia (to address its concerns over now defunct plans to deploy missile defense systems in Poland and the Czech Republic) that will mitigate the ability to use such systems against China.

Discussions on space and cyber security are also needed and could be mutually beneficial.  China is increasingly reliant on satellites for communication, navigation, and meteorology as well as intelligence collection, while at the same time continuing to develop and test anti-satellite weapons.  As the Obama Administration’s 2010 National Space Policy noted, “The now-ubiquitous and interconnected nature of space capabilities and the world’s growing dependence on them mean that irresponsible acts in space can have damaging consequences for all of us.”  Similarly, there is growing reliance globally on information networks for national and economic security and public safety.  China and the U.S. share an interest in working together to combat internet crime, protect e-banking, and counter cyber theft.  In July 2010, Wu Bangguo, China’s top legislator who formerly served as vice premier of the State Council charged with developing China’s cyber infrastructure, told three members of the U.S. Congress who were visiting Beijing that China does not want a cyber war and proposed that cyber security should be included as part of the Strategic and Economic Dialogue.

According to Gates, General Liang Guanglie said that China would consider and study his proposal for a strategic security dialogue.  Easing mutual strategic suspicions and building trust will undoubtedly be a long-term process, but these goals will be unattainable in the absence of candid discussions on critical security matters.  Such a dialogue would be a good first step.

Bonnie Glaser is a Senior Fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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