While China struggles to get along with its neighbours, policymakers there may at least be able to console themselves with this thought – military-to-military ties with the United States have improved dramatically in the past year.
The two sides now engage on a wide range of issues in several different forums, a shift that’s only likely to develop further in the near future. Yet despite the advances over the last 12 months, the reality is that nothing has happened to overcome the many perennial problems that bedevil the China-US defence relationship – a sustained, end of Cold War, transformation along the lines of the Soviet-American security relationship this certainly isn’t.
The apparent conflicting indicators were on display at this month’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Chinese Defence Minister Gen. Liang Guanglie both delivered speeches at the event, during which they expressed satisfaction with the resumption of high-level Sino-American military relations following China’s suspension of such contacts when the Barack Obama administration last year announced a massive arms sale to Taiwan.
Liang’s appearance marked the first time that a Chinese defence minister had attended the annual International Institute for Strategic Studies Asia Security Summit. The two defence ministers also convened a special bilateral session on the conference’s side-lines, where they continued a dialogue they had started this January when Gates visited Beijing.
Following Gates’ China trip, the US and Chinese governments initiated a Strategic Security Dialogue, the first session of which addressed cyber and maritime issues. Future sessions will discuss nuclear issues, missile defence, and outer space security.
Gen. Chen Bingde, chief of the People’s Liberation Army General Staff, also recently led a senior-level PLA delegation on a weeklong site visit to numerous military installations in the United States. During his keynote speech at the National Defence University in Washington, Chen emphasized that the PLA wasn’t a threat, since it lagged far behind the US armed forces.
These high-level engagements follow the decision of Presidents Obama and Hu Jintao to commit their governments to improving the ‘undeveloped’ defence relationship between these two great powers in Asia. Although economic and cultural ties between the United States and Chinese have expanded tremendously in recent years, their military relations have stagnated for more than a decade. Whenever the two defence establishments seem to be making progress, something happens to reverse the trajectory and move it downwards.
The recent change, then, makes sense in many ways for both sides, and it’s certainly sensible for them to seek to dampen Sino-American defence tensions, at least for a while. The Obama administration is eager to garner foreign policy successes to brandish before the US electorate at a time when the administration and Congress are seeking ways to restrain US military spending until the US economy recovers.
On the Chinese side, Beijing wants a calm international security environment during its upcoming leadership transition. Hu and his entourage are soon expected to be replaced by the next generation of Chinese leaders, and they might also hope to dangle incentives before the Obama administration and Congress in the hopes of delaying or diluting the next major arms sale to Taiwan.
Chen referred to this Hu-Obama presidential mandate to improve relations several times during his stay. But he also insisted that healthy China-US defence ties required ‘a new type of cooperative military relations featuring mutual respect and mutual benefit.’ This would occur ‘within the framework of a mutually beneficial partnership featuring mutual respect and win-win outcomes’ in which they ‘accommodate their respective core interests from a long-term perspective.’
Translated from general formulas into concrete deeds, this means that the United States must end military practices that the Chinese defence establishment finds objectionable.
But as Patrick Cronin pointed out last month in The Diplomat, while dialogue and engagement can help reduce tensions between countries when their conflicts result from misperceptions or misunderstandings, they can elevate tensions when the discussions only make clearer the underlying divergent interests of the two sides.
Cronin correctly cites one example of how his colleague, Christine Parthemore, is seeking to overcome the misperception that some of the disputed maritime zones around China are replete with energy resources. Instead of competing over these limited energy supplies, the Asia-Pacific countries could more profitably cooperate to preserve the health of their fisheries and other renewable resources from environmental and climate change. They also have a shared interest in collaborating to counter maritime piracy, transnational terrorism, and in managing the consequences of regional disasters.
However, it’s unrealistic to expect these small steps to create a solid foundation for broad-based confidence building. Unfortunately, most Sino-American security tensions fall into the latter category of diverging national interests—disputes over US maritime operations near China’s coast, US arms sales to Taiwan, US efforts to maintain a regional balance of power, and so on.
The problem of Taiwan still looms particularly large. As long as Beijing insists on re-establishing control over Taiwan, the Taiwanese people insist on their right to exercise their hard-won democratic liberties independent of the mainland’s Communist government, and Washington insists on its obligation to provide Taiwan with weapons to resist a PLA military invasion, the Taiwan issue will remain an insuperable obstacle to better PLA-Pentagon ties. Indeed, the Taiwan triangle almost obliges the People’s Liberation Army and the US Department of Defence to perceive one another as potential military adversaries.
When asked whether the benefits to Taiwan’s security from further US arms sales outweigh the resulting deterioration in the Sino-American relationship, Gates reportedly responded, ‘Well, we do have obligations under the Taiwan Relations Act.’ Still, he added that: ‘under both the Bush and Obama administrations, we’ve tried to thread the needle pretty carefully in terms of Taiwan's defensive capabilities, but at the same time being aware of China’s sensitivities. I think both administrations have done this very thoughtfully and very carefully.’
But a few weeks earlier, on May 13, Qian Lihua, director of the Foreign Affairs Office at the Chinese Department of National Defence, warned that unless Washington respects the China’s core interests by ending arms sales to Taiwan, China-US military ties will remain in a ‘stop-go’ mode, preventing them from pursuing their mutual interests, including maintaining peace and security in the Asia-Pacific region, combating terrorism and piracy, and participating in peace operations.
As a result, despite the recent progress, the Chinese government is likely to again ‘stop’ or suspend the defence relationship when the United States announces its next major arms sale to Taiwan. And there’s growing pressure in Congress and elsewhere for F-16 sales to occur soon in light of the continuing PLA military build-up opposite Taiwan that’s occurring, despite the improved political relationship between the two governments in recent years.
Compounding the problems is that the two sides still hold contrasting views of transparency. US officials consider transparency to be good in itself as a means of averting accidents and promoting mutual security confidence. The Pentagon staff makes a vigorous effort to brief foreign as well as domestic audiences about its policies and programmes to allay concerns, though sometimes—as in the case with the limited US missile defences designed to counter threats from Iran and North Korea, but not Russia or China—it doesn’t work. In contrast, Chinese officials have a very ‘transactional’ view of transparency, haggling over every item the PLA will show, and placing clear limits on what it will reveal.
Another reason why the recent improvement in Sino-American military relations might be temporary is that many of its key architects, including Gates, will soon leave the scene. According to Pentagon spokesperson Geoff Morrell, Liang observed at the bilateral session in Singapore ‘without his (Gates’) personal efforts, the progress that has been achieved over the past year would not have been possible.’
But Gates is retiring at the end of the month, and it’s unclear whether his presumed successor, current CIA Director Leon Panetta, is as committed to making defence diplomacy with China a priority. The new generation of political leaders that will take charge of China next year might also prove more difficult to deal with than the current senior office holders in Beijing.
More generally, the rapid turnover of senior office holders in the US federal government militates against overcoming Gates’ caution about the need for ‘patience’ since ‘these relationships take time to develop.’ After all, Gates is unusual in the long duration of his career in US government service, as most senior US policy makers rotate positions every two years or less.
Chinese leaders have also become increasingly irritated at the Obama administration’s renewed general commitment to East Asian security and its specific initiatives aimed at preserving a regional balance of power. For example, the Chinese government took umbrage when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year declared that the United States had a stake in resolving the South China Sea dispute and was therefore prepared to help mediate negotiations. They reacted similarly when Clinton and other US officials said that the US defence treaty with Japan covered the East China Sea islands Tokyo disputes with Beijing. China would prefer to keep the ASEAN states weak, divided, and isolated in order to pick them off one at a time.
Although upon his arrival in Singapore Gates told reporters that, ‘We are not trying to hold China down,’ it seems unlikely most Chinese believe such reassurances. Gates himself itemized all the new capabilities the PLA has recently displayed—ballistic anti-ship missiles, stealth aircraft, cyber capabilities, anti-satellite weapons, and a blue-water navy.
Gates also observed noted that the regional leaders welcomed the offshore balancing role of the US military when facing the Chinese colossus. ‘Indeed, one of the most striking – and surprising – changes I've observed during my travels to Asia is the widespread desire across the region for stronger military-to-military relationships with the United States – much more so than during my last time in government 20 years ago,’ he told Liang and the other Shangri-La participants.
Liang’s assurances that China would never use its increasing military capacity for expansionist purposes are likewise without foundation. ‘China will never seek hegemony or military expansion,’ Liang said in his speech. ‘This is a solemn pledge made by the Chinese government to the international community.’ But whatever the position of the current Chinese government, there’s no way anyone can be certain what policies future Chinese leaders will pursue.
In addition, Gates argued that the US armed forces were compensating for its reduced permanent forward presence in Asian overseas military bases by also adopting new forms of regional engagement, such as participating in more frequent port calls, military exercises, and multilateral training efforts. The Pentagon also believes that these activities will help build the capacity of the local armed forces to resist regional threats on their own—such as helping Vietnam and the Philippines defend their contested waters from the Chinese Navy.
As a result, Gates said that the United States was establishing a defence posture throughout the Asia-Pacific region ‘that is more geographically distributed, operationally resilient, and politically sustainable.’
During this last Asian tour as Defence Secretary, Gates reiterated his expectation that the United States would continue all these polices that China considers objectionable for years, if not decades. Although he acknowledged pressures on US defence spending, he also insisted that the Pentagon was devoting sufficient resources to overcoming the PLA’s growing area-denial and anti-access capabilities.
Ties between the two countries have improved, and that’s a welcome development. But there are too many issues that by their very nature offer little or no room for compromise for us to get too carried away.