Since the normalization of relations in 1979, U.S.-China security cooperation has mainly been of a political nature — operationalized at a high level of strategic policy coordination. Moreover, it has mostly been the purview of U.S. and Chinese civilian officials and diplomats — not generals and admirals.
Over the course of thirty years of relations, positive security cooperation between the military establishments of the U.S. and China — the uniformed services —have been the exception rather than the rule.
The “positive, cooperative, and comprehensive” relationship that Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao have committed to demands that the two militaries do better at achieving a stable relationship that can find ways to cooperate when necessary and mitigate the differences that divide them.
Military relations between the U.S. and China remain the weakest link in the overall bilateral relationship, and have been for many years. Of all of the elements that comprise this complex relationship, none has proven as difficult to manage, slow to move forward, frustrating, and subject to being hijacked by domestic political forces as the military dimension of U.S.-China relations.
Only in the 1980s, when both militaries were hyper-focused on the existential threat posed by the Soviet Union, did the two engage in security cooperation —mostly in the form of the U.S. selling China weapons systems and defense technologies.
By 1989 — when Sino-Soviet rapprochement was well under way, and U.S. technology transfers stopped due to the Tiananmen sanctions — the fundamental Chinese rationale for military cooperation with the U.S. dropped by the wayside and strategic differences came back to the forefront — most notably the issue of Taiwan.
It is now axiomatic that when overall relations are going well the military relationship lags behind — and when there is a crisis between Beijing and Washington military relations are usually the first to be sacrificed. This has proven to be the case so often that military officials on both sides of the pacific charged with managing this relationship are probably near-numbed by the on-again-off-again nature of the endeavor.
This begs a fundamental question. Why has the military relationship been subjected to this on-again-off-again cycle? One certainly could not imagine suspending economic or political contacts for significant periods of time over disagreements, no matter how significant.
One major reason is that in the past the costs associated with suspending military contacts have been perceived by both sides to be negligible.
There have been no major cooperative defense programs between these two militaries that would be endangered if military relations were cut off. What has been held at risk has been high-level visits and discussions, professional military and academic exchanges, and port calls — the major activities that have pretty much defined the military relationship since 1989.
A second reason why the relationship has been vulnerable is that during periods in which military relations have been in suspension the other dimensions of the bilateral relationship have carried on nearly unaffected — the economic, political, and cultural dimensions.
There is a school of thought in some quarters of Washington and Beijing that argues that using the military relationship as a “pressure release valve” to be turned on and off is not all that bad a thing because the cost is low, the impact on other dimensions of the relationship is presumed near-nil, and each side can posture “safely” over security and defense differences.
Others argue against this view, suggesting that sustainable and predictable contacts between the two military establishments are critical to confidence-building.
Regardless of where you come down on this issue, the fact remains that Beijing and Washington have yet to find a way to inject stability and predictability into military relations.
The fragile nature of military relations has not been lost on leaders from both nations. The two joint statements issued by President Obama and President Hu during their respective state visits in November 2009 and January 2011 have both spoken to the need for sustained and reliable military relations. The problem has been working out the details and modalities to make it so and resisting the urge to protest by suspending relations.
Up until the last few years, mutual suspicion and mistrust between the Chinese and American defense establishments had been centered almost exclusively upon the issue of Taiwan.
The reality is that the fundamental policies of the governments in Beijing and Washington vis-à-vis Taiwan de facto pit each military against the other on the issue of the island’s future.
How so? Beijing absolutely prefers a peaceful solution to the Taiwan issue. But China will not renounce the right to use of force as an option and is developing military capabilities that threaten Taiwan.
For its part, Washington’s basic stance is that it will support any solution that is agreed to by the people on both sides without coercion — and it reserves the right to sell Taiwan defensive arms under the Taiwan relations act.
The overall impact, then, of the Taiwan issue on U.S.-China military relations is that almost every U.S. security initiative in the Asia-pacific region — and almost all Chinese military modernization efforts — are viewed with a great deal of mutual suspicion by each side because they are refracted through the fundamental prism of a possible confrontation over Taiwan — and this remains the case today.
However, in recent years, mutual suspicions have moved beyond Taiwan and into the realm of each military questioning the other side’s intentions across a much broader set of geostrategic issues.
More recently are commonly held mirror image assessments in which Chinese strategists see U.S. military activities in central Asia, southwest Asia, and southeast Asia — and U.S. deployments to Guam — as part of a grand scheme of military encirclement out of which the PLA must break out — especially in the maritime domain.
On the U.S. side, a common assessment one currently hears is that Chinese military modernization efforts are specifically aimed at denying U.S. forces the ability to operate freely in the Asia-pacific region — that the PLA has an “anti-access strategy” that is meant to deny the U.S. its long-standing interest in unfettered access to Asia and its broader interest in freedom of the seas.
It is these types of mutual suspicions that feed serious misperceptions when it comes to analyzing specific policies. It is against this backdrop of deepening mutual suspicions that the next round of military relations will take place.
So where does the U.S.-China military relationship go from here?
We need to accept that the U.S. and Chinese militaries are not going to become very close institutionally as is the case with U.S. allies and many of Washington’s other defense partners.
However, it is likely that selective cooperation between the two militaries will in fact be desirable and necessary on those occasions when U.S. and Chinese national security interests align.
In this current age of hyper-globalization, China and the United States both face myriad non-traditional security challenges that will present opportunities for cooperation between the two militaries if they can develop the habits of cooperation and muster the political will to work together.
We need to break the habit of suspending contacts every time there is a serious disagreement over security affairs. The suspensions do nothing to resolve the arguments. They halt and reverse hard-won momentum in the military relationship. They create new sets of resentments. And they make many countries in the Asia-pacific region very nervous.
Probably the most important objective that U.S.-China military relations ought to seek to achieve is to create fora in which both sides can communicate intentions and preclude the miscalculation that can lead to unintended confrontation. With U.S. and Chinese military forces operating in closer physical proximity in Asia than at any time in the past, this is not a luxury — it is a necessity.
Those who have been involved with the U.S.-China military relationship know this will not be easy.
Over the next few months, officials from the pentagon and the PLA are going to be meeting and holding discussions during which they will attempt to develop a framework that will hopefully result in a sustainable and reliable military relationship that will serve the interests of both nations.
It is absolutely critical that they succeed. Let’s hope that they do. There is much at stake.
Dr. David Finkelstein is Vice President of CNA and Director of CNA China Studies, which focuses on U.S.-China relations, China’s changing role in the world order, and emerging trends within China. This article is adapted from a speech he gave at a symposium on U.S.-China relations on April 4, 2011, sponsored by the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at the University of Central Florida.