James Holmes

No, Mil-to-Mil Ties Can’t Make the US & China Play Nice

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James Holmes

No, Mil-to-Mil Ties Can’t Make the US & China Play Nice

Mil-to-mil ties can help on the margins, but can’t solve the fundamental clash of visions between the U.S. and China.

Tell no one: the Naval Diplomat harbors heretical views about certain subjects. Such is the case with military-to-military contacts. To all appearances, U.S. military officers and civilian officials vest great importance in such ties. That's particularly true when they relate to China's People's Liberation Army, the most probable red team on the horizon. Such contacts are meant to foster confidence. They're meant to build "strategic trust" across the Pacific. They're meant to avert misunderstandings on the high seas and aloft, reducing the likelihood of great-power strife.

And those are all good things. Such contacts are worth pursuing. Knowing each other's methods and operating habits could indeed cut back on encounters that ratchet up tensions unwittingly. But this does little to ameliorate controversies that arise from conscious choice. Few disputes between China and the United States, or between China and its neighbors, have come about through miscalculation. They stem from a fundamental clash of visions over the Asian order, and over who should be the keeper of that order.

The United States wants to uphold the system, China to modify it in keeping with its own interests and purposes. How this will play out is a political question, not a tactical or operational one. So let's not kid ourselves about mil-mil forums' potential to generate strategic trust and concord, let alone diplomatic amity. These are forums about tactical matters. It's doubtful combined exercises, port visits, and the like — tactical endeavors all — will do much to solve perhaps-insoluble disagreements. Such measures may pay off around the margins, but let's not expect too much.

A philosophical question is in play as well, to wit: there's little reason to assume that closer contact inexorably begets greater trust and confidence between two parties. Does knowing a bully persuade the weakling to repose trust and confidence in him? Well, sure. The smaller kid may trust the bully to beat him up at recess and take his lunch money. This is confidence borne of familiarity. But while it does clarify the state of things, it does little to create an era of good feelings on the playground. Quite the reverse.

As the playground goes, so goes international affairs — sometimes. The Imperial Japanese Navy and U.S. Navy knew each other intimately in the decades following Commodore Perry's voyages, but Pearl Harbor still came. Today's Europeans know Russia well. That's precisely why they fret about the Russian Navy's return to the Mediterranean Sea, about Moscow's habit of using energy supplies as a weapon, and so forth.

And remember just what China and the United States want each other to be confident in. Through its access-denial strategy and arsenal, the PLA is putting the U.S. military on notice that it enters maritime Asia only at Beijing's sufferance, and that it will pay a heavy price for attempting forcible entry. For its part, the U.S. military has fashioned an AirSea Battle concept designed to dispel doubts that American forces can kick in the Western Pacific door if need be. (Yes, yes, I know AirSea Battle isn't aimed at Lord Voldemort any particular country.)

Like scuffling with a bully in grade school, this is a type of comprehension that's unlikely to engender smooth relations. Nevertheless, the two competitors should frankly acknowledge the competitive dimension of transpacific relations, and thus the limits of the possible. Interlocutors in mil-mil enterprises can then work together to accomplish what they can within those constraints. Candor is at a premium when parleying with prospective opponents.

So again, contacts between the U.S. and Chinese armed forces are worth exploring in hopes of heading off inadvertent frictions and conflicts. They could prove fruitful at managing tactical interactions that could reverberate up to high policy. But the thorniest and most consequential questions are political questions. It's the job of statesmen — not commanders — to clarify and, if possible, settle or work around such questions.

That's why this weekend's summit between Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama may tell us more about the future of U.S.-China relations than can any number of confabs among defense officials and military officers. Summitry is where the action is.