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.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
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.