China Power

A New Type of US-China Military Relationship

Growing exchanges and a U.S. desire to cooperate suggest a policy of engagement, rather than containment.

If one word could summarize the United States’ relationship with China since the former’s pivot to Asia, it would be exploration. Global peace and regional security depend on healthy ties between Washington and Beijing, but both countries are still exploring the nature and extent of what these ties entail. 

Following the Bush administration, which allowed Sino-U.S. ties to wither, the Obama administration has had to establish a base upon which a mutually valuable relationship could be built. Trust, understanding and cooperation are key to the establishment of any healthy foreign policy.

During a recent visit to Washington, Chinese Defense Minister General Chang Wanquan met with U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to address several endeavors that the United States and China will undertake to strengthen their relationship.  While this visit did not fundamentally change Sino-U.S. relations, it demonstrates the commitment of both Pacific powers to establishing a peaceful and cooperative relationship. The visit also undermines the argument that the goal behind America’s pivot to Asia is Chinese containment.

Military cooperation was a focus of Chang’s visit and will be an important pillar of Sino-U.S. cooperation. “The United States welcomes and supports the rise of a prosperous and responsible China that helps solve regional and global problems,” said Secretary Hagel

This support will entail a number of joint military exercises. Just last month, the two sides conducted a counter-piracy drill in the in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. Then, on Monday, the PLA Navy and its U.S. counterpart conducted humanitarian rescue exercises off the coast of Hawaii. The Hagel-Chang meeting also led to an agreement to establish a notification mechanism to inform each other of their military activities, reduce the potential for miscalculation, and promote better coordination. Moreover, China will, for the first time ever, participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, the world’s largest international maritime warfare drill. 

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Military exchanges are also planned. This week, for instance, Admiral Wu Shengli, the commander of China’s Navy, is visiting the United States. Later this year, the U.S. Army’s Chief-of-Staff, General Raymond Odierno, and Air Force Chief-of-Staff General Mark Welsh, will visit China.  Additionally, Secretary Hagel will visit China next year for the first time as Secretary of Defense.

Critics of the U.S. pivot argue that it is merely a way to contain China’s rise and weaken its regional influence. Some argue that U.S. military policy is overly concerned with China. Other critics say that the pivot runs the risk of creating an Asian Cold War and there are those who think that Washington’s strategy is just a contradiction.

General Chang expressed some of these concerns regarding the U.S. pivot during his visit, noting that while Beijing wants to increase Sino-U.S. ties, the relationship cannot be dominated unilaterally. "To a certain degree, these kinds of intensified military activities further complicated the situation in the region," the general said. "We hope that this strategy does not target a specific country in the region,” he continued, “we hope the rebalancing strategy can bring peace to the Pacific region instead of seeking to weaken China."  

The U.S. policy of cooperating with China and developing its ability to conduct joint-military operations is not, however, a strategy that would be pursued if containment were the priority. Traditional containment policy aims to limit a country’s military capacity and diplomatically isolate it by building up coalitions and allies to counter-balance the targeted country.

Instead, Washington is pursuing a strategy of engagement. Through military exchanges and joint military exercises, the U.S. seeks to engage China as a partner in global defense issues. Through cooperation on humanitarian activities and regional security, it seeks to have China become a dependable member in the Asia-Pacific region and a more involved member of the global community, following the same principles and norms that the U.S. and its allies follow.

Whether this engagement strategy will result in substantial and lasting gains remains to be seen. Regardless of the immediate outcome, however, this continued process of cooperation, dialogue and commitment will allow for the continued exploration and development of the Sino-U.S. relationship. 

Ryan McClure is an attorney and foreign policy blogger at The Bamboo Curtain. You can follow him on Twitter @TheBambooC..