The US-China Military Ties Reality


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.

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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.

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