Features | Security | East Asia

Are China and US Destined to Clash?

August 1 is Army Day in China. Recent improvements in Sino-US military ties are welcome, but conflicting interests mean tensions might still be inevitable.

In a recent piece in the New York Times, Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed the importance of improving Sino-US military relations.

Mullen acknowledged that PLA-Pentagon ties have frequently been characterized by ‘misunderstanding and suspicion,’ and complained that Beijing continues to employ bilateral defence ties as ‘a sort of thermostat to communicate displeasure. When they don’t like something we do, they cut off ties. That can’t be the model anymore.’

Actually, curtailing military exchanges has been a favoured diplomatic mechanism for Beijing and Washington to signal displeasure with a particular development in the overall relationship. The Chinese readily suspended various military visits, exchanges, and other defence contacts after the 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing, the 2001 EP-3 collision, and in retaliation for the announcement of major US arms sales to Taiwan. Most recently, Beijing froze US-Chinese defence cooperation for the remainder of the Bush administration after the White House notified Congress in October 2008 of its plans to sell Taiwan $6.5 billion worth of arms. Then, the Chinese government suspended senior-level defence visits, rejected US Navy ship requests to take leave at China’s ports, and cancelled meetings on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and WMD non-proliferation—disrupting almost a dozen military exchange programmes in the process.

But the United States has also disrupted bilateral military exchanges with China. The Tiananmen crackdown of June 4, 1989, when PLA troops forcibly repressed peaceful democracy activists in Beijing, resulted in the George H. W. Bush administration’s suspending military contracts and defence technology transfers, as well as indefinitely freezing all visits between US and Chinese military leaders. It wasn’t until Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Chas W. Freeman, Jr. visited China in October 1993 that bilateral military-to-military contacts resumed.  

A decade later, members of Congress demonstrated alarm over alleged Chinese espionage in the United States by imposing severe restrictions on PLA-Pentagon contacts. Section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 explicitly directed the defence secretary not to authorize military contacts with China that could lead to inappropriate PLA access to an itemized list of advanced US military capabilities. 

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External factors unrelated to the military exchanges also contributed to the congressional decision. Members complained about China’s human rights practices (ranging from suppression of civil liberties to allegations of forced abortions and slave labour), Beijing’s sale of ballistic missiles and nuclear technologies to states of proliferation concern, and its policies towards Tibet and Taiwan.

Mullen writes that improving Pentagon-PLA military ties requires developing ‘strategic trust’ between the two militaries through talking – ‘a good bit of misunderstanding between our militaries can be cleared up by reaching out to each other’ and byfocus(ing) on the things we have in common.’ He sees these mutual interests as protecting maritime commerce from piracy and other constraints, impeding the proliferation of drugs and weapons of mass destruction, and promoting regional stability in the Koreas and Pakistan.

To help this along, Mullen invited Gen. Chen Bingde, the head of the PLA, to visit the United States in May. Mullen went on a reciprocal visit to China in mid-July, and argues that such contacts have been an important tool for overcoming mistrust.

The fact is, though, that high-level meetings are nothing new – many senior Chinese and US defence officials and officers have visited each other’s countries over the past two decades. In addition, Chinese vessels conducted port calls at US naval bases in Pearl Harbor and San Diego, while the US Navy continued to visit the Chinese port of Hong Kong about 50 times annually.  Defense academic exchanges also occurred through the two countries’ respective National Defense Universities, war colleges, and other military education institutions. During these exchanges, the two sides visited each other’s military facilities and received briefings on military doctrine and other topics. Yet the mistrust and confrontation continues.

During Mullen’s visit, the PLA and the Pentagon announced a new set of military exercises. But these basic Sino-American military drills have been going on for more than a decade. During President Clinton’s June 1998 visit to China, Chinese and US officials agreed that their respective military establishments could observe a joint training exercise of the other side. Chinese military observers subsequently attended the US-led RIMPAC and Cope Thunder exercises. In turn, Gen. Henry Shelton, then chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, observed a military exercise in the Nanjing Military Region in November 2000. In addition, US military observers attended the Warrior 2007 and Libing 2008 exercises, while China and the United States engaged in their first joint search-and-rescue exercise involving warships from both countries in September 2006 off the Chinese coast and off of San Diego. But the Chinese then suspended all military exercises and other military contacts after the George W. Bush administration announced a record arms sale to Taiwan in October 2008.

In any case, the Sino-American military exercises have always been an order of magnitude smaller than China has engaged in with Russia and some Central Asian countries. In 2005 and 2007, these involved thousands of Chinese troops as well as Chinese warplanes and, in 2005, warships.

Mullen acknowledges bilateral differences over Taiwan arms sales, the intentions behind China’s military build-up and military operating rights in the South China Sea, but argues that ‘these sticking points aren’t all bad. It’s all right to disagree sometimes.’ He further insists that ‘sometimes bluntness and honesty are exactly what’s needed to create strategic trust.’

It’s true that the Chinese government has been providing more information about its military plans and programmes to address US and other Western complaints. Since the mid-1990s, China has been publishing ‘white papers’ regarding their security and defence policies. But even the most recent such document, while providing more information than previous editions, pales in the amount of data offered compared with those made publicly available by the US Defence Department. Japan and Australia also offer comprehensive data about their military programmes, which are subject to close parliamentary and media scrutiny. Other East Asian countries more closely follow the Chinese model of releasing only limited information about their defence goals and programmes, but their military potential is much less significant than these other states.

There’s an obvious reason why Beijing is reluctant to release much information – Chinese officials worry that improved transparency could provide US military intelligence with insights into China's defence vulnerabilities. Concealing the PLA’s assets and plans complicates US efforts to identify Chinese military targets or respond effectively to Chinese defence programmes. 

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It also took years of American lobbying to persuade Beijing to accept Washington’s long-standing proposal to establish a hotline between the Pentagon and the Chinese Defense Ministry. US planners believe the direct link could facilitate communications during a crisis, but the Chinese political leadership has made clear its determination to maintain tight control over any Sino-American dialogue in a future military confrontation

Of course, a ‘hotline’ already exists linking the PLA and Pentagon defence establishments. The Sino-American military hotline has been used extensively in recent months—to sort out the meal menus and other logistical issues for the two chief of staff visits. But a direct phone connection between two parties only works when the other side is willing to listen. In past crises, the Chinese would often not even bother to pick up the phone. Despite President George H. W. Bush’s extensive dealings with the Chinese in the 1970s and 1980s, the newly elected US president found that his Chinese interlocutors ignored his telephone calls during the June 1989 Tiananmen Square incident.

A second communication and intelligence crisis occurred when US warplanes accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade during the May 1999 Kosovo War. The attack killed three Chinese journalists, who later were suspected of being covert intelligence operatives working at China’s main European intelligence gathering centre at the time. The Chinese government responded by encouraging violent street protests against US diplomatic facilities in China and by curtailing talks on international security issues such as arms control and non-proliferation. For days, Chinese leaders ignored attempts by President Clinton to call them about the escalating confrontation.

Chinese officials also ignored attempts by the U.S. military to communicate with the crew of its damaged Navy EP-3E Aries II spy plane, when it was forced to make an emergency landing in China in 2001 after colliding with a PLA fighter aircraft off China’s coast. Instead, the Chinese military denied US officials access to the two dozen crew members as well as the plane.

The US national security community would like the military leaders of both countries to have the capability to resolve any misunderstandings directly to avert a needless escalation of a potential crisis. China’s political leadership, however, remains unenthusiastic about allowing direct communications between PLA and US officers. Why? Because civilian officials want to keep the PLA under tight control, including by ensuring that they supervise all its foreign military contacts.

But communication isn’t even the main problem. The two sides have been well aware of their fundamental differences for decades. Dialogue and engagement can help reduce tensions between countries when their conflicts result from misperceptions or misunderstandings. However, they can elevate tensions when the discussions only make clearer the parties’ underlying divergent interests. 

We shouldn’t, of course, be as harsh as Randy Schriver, one of America’s top Asian experts who served in senior position in previous US administrations. Schriver claims for example that, ‘If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then surely it’s time for a serious examination of the costs and benefits of US government efforts to build a more robust military relationship with China.’

Such a warning might apply in physical science where, in the absence of a new technology or other technique, the same initial conditions will lead to the same outcome. In the realm of international politics, though, the world is constantly evolving. China is constantly changing, as is the composition of the country’s key policy makers. Most importantly, Chinese policies regarding many important issues have evolved. This is quite evident in Beijing’s approach toward Moscow, which went from a close alliance in the 1950s, to a shooting war in the 1960s, to a harmonious alignment during the last two decades.

Still, the main impediments to improved Chinese-US defence diplomacy remain fundamentally unchanged. Ultimately, the problem is that the two countries are currently rivals for influence in Asia and potentially adversaries for regional hegemony. Bilateral defence ties are unlikely to improve as long as the underlying security relationship between both countries remains so confrontational. As a result, the key outputs—limited transparency, transactional haggling over exchanges, and conditional, confrontational, and easily disrupted engagement—will persist.

The PLA’s growing strength is aggravating these difficulties. China’s growing capacity for and interest in conducting global security operations might enhance international peace and security since the Chinese military can provide more soldiers to UN peacekeeping operations and dispatch warships to counter threats to maritime commerce such as other piracy threats. Unfortunately, the expanding global reach of the Chinese armed forces also increases opportunities for further Chinese-American military clashes, whether due to accidents, miscalculation, or other causes.

At the end of the PLA’s increasing capabilities are emboldening it to more directly challenge US military policies—such as the air and maritime surveillance activities—that it has long opposed but had to put up with. This being the case, confidence-building measures will have little effect. Why? Because the problem the two countries face isn’t the risk of accidental clashes due to misunderstandings. It’s the fundamental disagreement of principle between Beijing’s expanding notion of national sovereignty and the Pentagon’s insistence on freedom of movement in the global commons.