By Michael Swaine
But there are things Washington and Beijing can do to avoid this outcome.
First, the two countries must engage in a strategic dialogue at the track-two—or semi-official—level with military and civilian figures outside government. By holding open-ended talks that go beyond the official level, these participants can address the medium- and long-term implications of the current military trajectories and the specific territorial, economic, and political issues driving the countries apart. While leaders won’t officially be involved in the discussions, track-two participants should maintain close contact with them to keep them informed of developments and seek their input.
Second, both sides must sustain and strengthen military-to-military links, as US Defence Secretary Robert Gates signalled during his recent visit to China. These ties must be insulated from the overall ups and downs of the bilateral relationship, to avoid feeding mistrust and curtailing understanding between the militaries.
Third, Washington and Beijing need to assess the military dynamic over Taiwan. China’s military continues to deploy forces along the coast, while the United States continues to sell arms to the island. As time goes on, China will be less likely to tolerate US military aid to Taiwan. Washington should therefore reconsider its current strategy and contemplate broaching a conversation with China about mutual constraint.
Fourth, both militaries should expand ways of cooperating on other security issues. China is already participating in international piracy controls in the Gulf of Aden. Further cooperation in areas such as disaster and humanitarian relief, counterterrorism, or other non-traditional threats would help boost the overall relationship.
All of these steps will involve strengthening the incentives and abilities of both militaries to cooperate, while avoiding the use of worst-case assumptions about the other. It won’t be easy—both militaries will need to make a sustained commitment to communicate frequently, at both the personal and operational levels, and with as much candour as possible. This in turn will require a strong commitment to such military contact on the part of senior civilian leaders on both sides. Unless this happens, however, progress on strategic issues will be limited, hostility could grow, and both sides could become more resolute about defending their respective military objectives.
Michael Swaine is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.