Security relations stand out as a pivotal factor in international relations and therefore not only dictate the nature of relations between two nations but also have a profound impact on world peace and stability. Given the front-rank position and measurable role of both China and the US, the China-US security relationship is of the utmost importance to the Asia-Pacific region and even to the entire world. To fully understand the implications, we must take a glance at the past history of China-US security relations.
Since 1979, the China-US relationship has experienced numerous hurdles and experienced both good and bad times. However, it will be of mutual benefit if the countries can cooperate on a number of issues, especially when those issues revolve around the security of the relationship. Therefore the three greatest security issues are the lack of mutual trust, Taiwan, and US domestic laws that hinder military-to-military cooperation. These issues are examined further below.
1. A Lack of Mutual Trust
Recent years have witnessed the deepening of American distrust and suspicion about China’s rise. Some Americans even believe that China and the US are destined for conflict. In spite of repeated statements by American officials that the US welcomes a successful and prosperous China to play a bigger role in the international community, the US has constantly intensified its efforts to take precautions against and contain China.
Taiwan has been deemed a “Core Interest” by the Chinese government. This designation reiterates the importance of the issue to Beijing, however it seems to have hit a nerve within the China-US bilateral relationship. In recent years, cross-Straight relations have improved significantly. Nevertheless, the US has on many occasions offered Taiwan sizable arms packages. This has not only created unrest in the China-US relationship, it has also created instability in the relationship between Beijing and Taipei.
3. Barriers Within Domestic US Laws
Military ties between China and the US are at the core of the bilateral relationship. However, the development of military ties is currently hindered by domestic laws within the United States. For instance, the Tom DeLay Amendment to the American FY 2000 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the US to conduct military exchanges with China in 12 fields including logistics and power projection, and what’s more, it even demands the US Department of Defense to submit a report on the Military Power of the PRC annually. The unwarranted suspicion of China is embodied within this law. This has not only handicapped contacts and cooperation between the Chinese and American militaries but also dented security interests of both sides. Under the law, the report on the Military Power of the PRC submitted by the US Department of Defense annually plays up the so-called “China military threat”, thus poisoning the atmosphere needed for developing the China-US military ties.
A New Type of China-US Relationship
Since President Obama took office in 2008, the heads of state of China and the US have met 12 times. Each time these two men agree on the continuation of strong bilateral ties and seek to further the relationship on a number of issues. They have decided to forge a cooperative partnership, featuring mutual respect, mutual benefit and win-win for all, and to explore the way of shaping up a new type of major power relationship.
However, only when the premises of mutual respect, equality and inclusiveness are there will it be possible for a new type of China-US security relationship to be established. History has proved that once issues related to the core interests and vital concerns of both sides are handled properly, China-US ties will progress smoothly and steadily. Otherwise, troubles will pop up one after another. To be more specific, the US ought to respect China’s major concerns on such issues as Taiwan and Tibet—issues that involve China’s core interests, halt selling arms to Taiwan, and relinquish its support for the Dalai Lama.
China and the US are closely bound by their mutual interests, and their reciprocal cooperation is underpinned by strategic mutual trust—the deeper their mutual trust develops, the vaster their cooperation will become. Therefore, the two countries should develop more mutual understanding, cultivate more trust, and harbor less suspicion. For this reason, China and the US ought to establish more dialogues, exchanges, and communication by making full use of various channels available. President Obama, Vice-President Biden and other high-ranking US officials have reiterated on many occasions that the US welcomes a strong, prosperous and successful China to play a bigger role in the world. As an old Chinese saying goes: “Listen to what one says and watch what he does”. We are ready to believe what the US has said, while waiting on the US to take convincing steps and deliver on what it has said.
As permanent members of the UN Security Council and the two largest economic entities in the world, the shared interests between China and the US in the political, economic and security sectors are growing. China and the US enjoy a wide range of common interests in addressing such hotspot issues like those of the Korean Peninsula and the Iran nuclear issue, and in responding to such global issues as climate change, counter-terrorism, cyber security, outer-space security, energy, public health, food security, natural disasters and so on. Given this reality, promoting pragmatic cooperation between China and the US, which is the common expectation of the international community, should become the effective way of building a new type of China-US security relationship.
Being the largest developing nation and the largest developed power respectively, China and the US remain widely different in ideology, political system, historical background, development stages, social environment and culture. Thus, it is inevitable for the two countries to be side-tracked by minor issues and disputes. However, preventing these conflicts and disputes from developing into crisis should be the primary goal for Washington and Beijing.
The promotion of a new type of China-US security relationship, in order to serve the objective of founding a new type of big power relationship, should be at the forefront of the efforts to encourage a better and brighter future for both China and the US, as well as the Asia-Pacific region.
Xiong Guangkai is Full General & Professor, Former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), Honorary Chairman of China Foundation for International & Strategic Studies.