Surprise: US-China Military Ties Are Actually Improving

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Today marks the start of RIMPAC 2014, the largest naval exercise in the world. For the first time, China is among the participants in this U.S.-organized exercise. As Ankit noted on our Flashpoints blog, China’s participation in RIMPAC is unlikely to fundamentally change the nature of U.S.-China mil-to-mil relations. However, in the midst of angry rhetoric on both sides (particularly at the Shangri-La Dialogue), it’s easy to forget that the military aspect of the U.S.-China relationship has actually been on the upswing in recent years.

Back in 2010, military relations were so fragile that China cut them off completely in retaliation for a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. At that time, then-U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in frustration that the military-to-military relationship was the only area were progress was “held hostage” by other concerns. He then publicly repeated the desire of U.S. President Obama and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao for “sustained and reliable military-to-military contacts at all levels that reduce miscommunication, misunderstanding, and miscalculation.”

At the time of Gates’ remarks, freezes on mil-to-mil contacts were the exception rather than the norm. Such contacts had been severed numerous times in the past, usually for precisely the reason they were cut off in 2010: as an angry Chinese response to a U.S. arms sale to Taiwan. However, since the resumption of mil-to-mil contacts in January 2011, the military aspect of the relationship has been remarkably stable.

After Gates’ ice-breaking visit to China in 2011, a slew of official military-to-military contacts followed. General Chen Bingde, Chief of the PLA General Staff, came to the U.S. in 2011, and Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie followed in 2012. Liang’s visit was a huge step forward for U.S.-China mil-to-mil relations. Many had assumed China would cancel the trip in the wake of yet another U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, and the diplomatic tensions arising from the Chen Guangcheng incident. Liang himself said that his visit to the U.S. “is a kind of turnover in the China-U.S. military relationship.”

Since that “turnover,” U.S.-China military contacts have been more frequent than ever before. Both Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the journey to China in 2012. China’s Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan came to the U.S. in 2013, and new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in China earlier this year. General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Chinese counterpart Fang Fenghui also traded visits in 2013 and 2014.

Keeping military-to-military contacts stable and regular has been a stated goal for Obama and Hu as well as Xi Jinping. In part, this may be a sign that China in particular is more interested in such a dialogue. In the past, many experts felt that China did not value the security dialogues very highly, and so such meetings became diplomatic scapegoats, sacrificed to prove China’s displeasure with various U.S. actions. Now, however, China seems just as interested in having serious discussions about U.S. military policy (especially the “rebalance to Asia”) as the U.S. is to speak with China.

Meanwhile, as high-level talks have become more routine, the two sides have begun to increase joint drills — not just RIMPAC, but bilateral drills as well. The U.S. and China have held a number of joint exercises on search and rescue operations, anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. These are small steps forward, but they still represent progress. China has been particularly adamant that its participation in RIMPAC should not be easily dismissed; a Xinhua commentary argued firmly that the RIMPAC drill was “not window-dressing for China-U.S. ties.” Meanwhile, U.S. Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery also sees recent joint activities as signs “of a modestly improving relationship.”

Obviously, mil-to-mil cooperation, whether in the form of joint exercises or high-level dialogue, is not a panacea for tensions between the U.S. and China. It also has not been as effective as some had hoped in preventing accidents, as the near-collision of the USS Cowpens with a PLAN vessel showed. As James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon argue persuasively in their new book, Strategic Reassurance and Resolve, the U.S. and China are particularly in need of greater access to each other’s military leaders in the case of a crisis — and of agreements regarding proper maneuvering and signaling on the open seas to prevent such crises from arising in the first place. The U.S. and China haven’t reached this goal yet, but doing so will be impossible without the sort of regular military contact the two countries are starting to develop.

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