With the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise now underway, commentators have once again begun to question the usefulness of the U.S. and its allies and partners engaging China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) at all, given the America’s legal limitations on the level of interaction that is allowed between its armed services and the PLA and the generally limited scope of such exercises.
Such skepticism needs to be framed in the context of what the goals of security cooperation with China are. In its latest annual report to Congress on military and security developments involving the People’s Republic of China, the U.S. Department of Defense placed strong emphasis on “building a military-to-military relationship with China that is sustained and substantive.” The report highlighted the importance of using military-to-military ties with China as a way to “encourage China to contribute constructively to efforts with the United States, [America’s] allies and partners, and the greater international community to maintain peace and stability.”
Contrary to the view that international military exercises, particularly with China, are meaningful in name only, there are long-term benefits to such engagements that can only be gained through a sustained commitment to slowly building up personal relationships and communication channels with the PLA. Furthermore, security cooperation can encompass paramilitary or constabulary-level cooperation and does not always have to come in the form of large-scale RIMPAC-style interactions. It is important for commentators to calibrate their expectations of individual exercises and for policymakers to sustain their efforts at fostering broader and deeper security cooperation. While deepening security ties could involve consistent repetition of existing exercises to reinforce their place in institutional culture, broadening the scope of such interaction (while still working with the United States’ NDAA FY 2000 constraints) requires some creative thinking. Here are three alternative approaches for engaging the PLA that the United States and its regional allies and partners should consider:
1. Using “Non-Aligned” Countries As Conduits
Given recent tensions in the South China Sea, it is imperative that ASEAN members explore creative options to engage China as well, including through military exercises. Over time, as an Asian Pacific power, the U.S. might seek invitation to these activities, first as an observer. These kinds of low-level interactions are another interface between regional military members — one that can also circumvent the kinds of political sensitivities and legislative challenges on both sides in rushing to broaden the existing repertoire of U.S.-China bilateral exercises.
Of course, some Southeast Asian nations are claimant states in South China Sea territorial disputes. States like Indonesia, however, being neutral (should no dispute arise over the Natuna Islands) and not a U.S. ally, could be a prime candidate to act as a conduit. Indonesia also prides itself on maintaining a “free and active” foreign policy — a variant of non-alignment — and promotes the idea of “dynamic equilibrium,” which encourages an Asia-Pacific order that is not dominated by any one state. As such, Indonesia actively positions itself to encourage “inclusivity,” good relations between Asia Pacific states and participation in order-building structures.
One such way might be for Indonesia to more actively pursue a multilateral exercise between itself, the United States, China and Australia. As the largest state in ASEAN, Indonesia is an ideal facilitator for this proposal, and this would also align with the idea that ASEAN could be the fulcrum of the Asia-Pacific region, with initiatives emanating from member states. In 2011 and again in 2012, President Yudhoyono proposed Chinese participation in regional disaster relief exercises that might involve U.S. Marines stationed in Darwin. U.S. Pacific Command chief Admiral Samuel Locklear affirmed Washington’s support for Yudhoyono’s proposal during a trip to Canberra in July 2012. Ideas for what kind of exercises might be appropriate could begin from observing this year’s iteration of RIMPAC, in which China is participating for the first time. Beginning with a table-top exercise, a quadrilateral activity could be expanded in the future to include other partners like Singapore, New Zealand and Malaysia, all possible conduit states themselves – and could gradually extend beyond disaster relief matters.
2. Encouraging China’s Multilateralism
As articulated by Scot Marciel, the U.S. State Department’s Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, the foreign policy space in Asia is not zero-sum. In fact, many Obama administration officials have advocated China playing a bigger role within regional institutions.
On that note, during his speech at this year’s Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Lieutenant General Wang Guanzhong of the PLA announced the Chinese Minister of Defense’s invitation to Southeast Asia’s defense ministers to participate in a Special China-ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in 2015. Both the content and timing of this announcement come as no surprise, especially given the ASEAN defense ministers’ March 2014 trip to Hawaii for the first ever U.S.-ASEAN Defense Forum hosted by the United States, which Chuck Hagel had conveniently announced in his Shangri-La speech in 2013. In light of this Chinese gesture, it is worthwhile for key spokespeople of the Obama administration’s Asia policy, like Hagel himself, Evan Medeiros (the National Security Council’s Director for Asian Affairs), or David Shear (the nominee for Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs), to consider acknowledging China’s gesture as a positive step toward better regional defense cooperation rather than a competitive move against the United States.
3. Increasing Cooperation on Transnational Crime
The PLA Navy (PLAN) is already heavy involved in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. As Andrew Erickson and Austin Strange have pointed out, the multinational counter-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden has provided a remarkable and unprecedented platform for the PLAN to work successfully together with the U.S., European and even Japanese navies despite China’s sometimes difficult maritime relations in waters closer to home. The success of the Gulf of Aden model, which ostensibly capitalizes on a shared interest between countries in the safety of sea lanes critical for global trade, is one that can be built upon further through other platforms.
Given that the Chinese Coast Guard has been at the center of some heated confrontations with China’s maritime neighbors over disputed territories, the region could definitely use more friendly interactions between maritime law enforcement agencies. Although in reality, in the East and South China Seas, the Coast Guard arguably serves as the first line of contact with other maritime neighbors, it is the PLAN that has been the primary participant in sea-based missions and training exercises with other countries. There is currently a relative dearth in training opportunities between the region’s coast guards. Such training opportunities, whether in the context of counter-piracy or counter-narcotics activities, provide areas of common interest from which coast guards can connect and gain a better understanding of each other’s protocols when encountering other vessels, which could help mitigate future tense incidences in contested waters. In the realm of counter-narcotics in the Greater Mekong region, a Memorandum of Understanding between China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) signed in 1993 provides an existing model for paramilitary and constabulary cooperation with China.
Overall, there is also a strong case to be made for continuing efforts to increase interactions with PLA members. These efforts not only bolster U.S. claims that it is not containing China, but rather wishes to work together with it, but also allow Southeast Asian states, for instance, to ultimately own the agenda of military engagement in their region.
Natalie Sambhi is an analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) and editor of ASPI’s blog, The Strategist, and was recently a visiting fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Nicole Yeo is a Joseph S. Nye, Jr. National Security Research Intern in the Asia-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS).