No, Mil-to-Mil Ties Can’t Make the US & China Play Nice
Image Credit: DoD photo by D. Myles Cullen

No, Mil-to-Mil Ties Can’t Make the US & China Play Nice


Tell no one: the Naval Diplomat harbors heretical views about certain subjects. Such is the case with military-to-military contacts. To all appearances, U.S. military officers and civilian officials vest great importance in such ties. That's particularly true when they relate to China's People's Liberation Army, the most probable red team on the horizon. Such contacts are meant to foster confidence. They're meant to build "strategic trust" across the Pacific. They're meant to avert misunderstandings on the high seas and aloft, reducing the likelihood of great-power strife.

And those are all good things. Such contacts are worth pursuing. Knowing each other's methods and operating habits could indeed cut back on encounters that ratchet up tensions unwittingly. But this does little to ameliorate controversies that arise from conscious choice. Few disputes between China and the United States, or between China and its neighbors, have come about through miscalculation. They stem from a fundamental clash of visions over the Asian order, and over who should be the keeper of that order.

The United States wants to uphold the system, China to modify it in keeping with its own interests and purposes. How this will play out is a political question, not a tactical or operational one. So let's not kid ourselves about mil-mil forums' potential to generate strategic trust and concord, let alone diplomatic amity. These are forums about tactical matters. It's doubtful combined exercises, port visits, and the like — tactical endeavors all — will do much to solve perhaps-insoluble disagreements. Such measures may pay off around the margins, but let's not expect too much.

A philosophical question is in play as well, to wit: there's little reason to assume that closer contact inexorably begets greater trust and confidence between two parties. Does knowing a bully persuade the weakling to repose trust and confidence in him? Well, sure. The smaller kid may trust the bully to beat him up at recess and take his lunch money. This is confidence borne of familiarity. But while it does clarify the state of things, it does little to create an era of good feelings on the playground. Quite the reverse.

As the playground goes, so goes international affairs — sometimes. The Imperial Japanese Navy and U.S. Navy knew each other intimately in the decades following Commodore Perry's voyages, but Pearl Harbor still came. Today's Europeans know Russia well. That's precisely why they fret about the Russian Navy's return to the Mediterranean Sea, about Moscow's habit of using energy supplies as a weapon, and so forth.

And remember just what China and the United States want each other to be confident in. Through its access-denial strategy and arsenal, the PLA is putting the U.S. military on notice that it enters maritime Asia only at Beijing's sufferance, and that it will pay a heavy price for attempting forcible entry. For its part, the U.S. military has fashioned an AirSea Battle concept designed to dispel doubts that American forces can kick in the Western Pacific door if need be. (Yes, yes, I know AirSea Battle isn't aimed at Lord Voldemort any particular country.)

Like scuffling with a bully in grade school, this is a type of comprehension that's unlikely to engender smooth relations. Nevertheless, the two competitors should frankly acknowledge the competitive dimension of transpacific relations, and thus the limits of the possible. Interlocutors in mil-mil enterprises can then work together to accomplish what they can within those constraints. Candor is at a premium when parleying with prospective opponents.

So again, contacts between the U.S. and Chinese armed forces are worth exploring in hopes of heading off inadvertent frictions and conflicts. They could prove fruitful at managing tactical interactions that could reverberate up to high policy. But the thorniest and most consequential questions are political questions. It's the job of statesmen — not commanders — to clarify and, if possible, settle or work around such questions.

That's why this weekend's summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama may tell us more about the future of U.S.-China relations than can any number of confabs among defense officials and military officers. Summitry is where the action is.

June 14, 2013 at 03:47

Mr. Holmes fails to recongnize the niether military commanders nor politicians operate in a vacum and commanders do in fact exert a great amount of influence on politicians and in some case become politicians themselves.

June 13, 2013 at 21:16

“Diplomacy is utterly useless where there is no force behind it.” ~Theodore Roosevelt, Naval War College, 1897

June 13, 2013 at 14:56

M2M ties of US & China is just merely to prevent any Mishap or Miscalculations…Still China is very persistent to US to leave ASIA Pacific to have it's own Muscle and Impose a RULE that many Asians a very close neighbors may do not want the New Imperial China… Mark my word, China's path now is like Japanese path before WW2 it's merely Greed for it's Economic & Military ambitions.

If China wants to ACT like a real BIG Brother to ASIA, all of her neighbors will welcome it's rise and US would allow them to share the world responsibility for World Peace & Security.

Main important factor…No one Trust China on Security Issues while BULLY it's neighbors.

June 11, 2013 at 14:54

"Do Americans in Okinawa, South Korea, and Germany act like occupation forces?"

The okinawa opposes the american forces on their island. 

Koza riot​

I also reject the american forces in asia.

June 11, 2013 at 01:24

@scdado7:  Oh Mr. proudchinaman.  Haven't heard from you for a long time.  Let me remind you one more time: "Wisemen speak because they have something to say, fools (like you), because thay gave to say something" — Plato.

June 11, 2013 at 01:20

@Bankotsu:  Are you implying Asia for Asian?  I've heard of that slogan before (from Japan at the start of WW2).  Does it ring a bell to you?

June 11, 2013 at 00:45

Coz generals love their overseas deployments. It's money in the cashbag and provides places outside the US to live in. At least one critic said they're like vacation homes for officers who want to spend time abroad before retiring back to the US. Think about it. Do Americans in Okinawa, South Korea, and Germany act like occupation forces? To make it clearer for you, occupation is like what Imperial Japan did to China. Now do you see the same thing happening in the 3 places I mentioned? Yes or no?

June 10, 2013 at 16:16

"If China went democratic, there would be less anxity in the US and the west in general."

Then why is U.S. still wary of Germany and Japan? Why are there tens of thousands of U.S. troops in these two countries?


June 9, 2013 at 20:04

Frankly all these exchange is just a matter of protocol and serve nothing. If there is a trust that matters and bind to true friendship, it would be just words and a handshake without even having to signed an agreement ot treaty.

If one is to look around this is not something that you cannot find or believe that such things does not exist. It does and it has been around for many years. No treaty, no agreement, just between two gentlemens and a long standing friendship from their fathers to their sons now.

Look around you and figure out who they are? This is what we call real friendship and a binding one too.

June 9, 2013 at 11:25

Our military is NOT unsustainable. In terms of the ratio of defense spending to GDP, troop strength, and forces deployed abroad, the US military is smaller now than it was at the height of the cold war (the economy by the way, is LARGER). The reason it seems like we can no longer afford it is because of significantly lower taxes and fiscal mismanagement.

June 8, 2013 at 20:15

If China went democratic, there would be less anxity in the US and the west in general.  By adopting our systems, the Chinese would be seen as an extension of our world view.  Even if a democratic liberal China became the most powerful nation in the world, it would still be a victory… Because they became just like us to do it. 

June 8, 2013 at 09:59

Sinking their carrier is an Act of War especially as it's a strategic asset and the PRC wil define it as a strategic asset. That is path to avoid unless all other options av been exhausted.

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