Defense News reports that Gen. Vincent Brooks, commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific (USARPAC), will try to step up the “land force dialogue” between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and United States Army in the Pacific.
At the beginning of the year, the U.S. media reported that the Pentagon was suspending additional bilateral military exchanges “until Washington and Beijing can agree on rules for encounters between warplanes.” In the summer of 2014, a Chinese military plane came perilously close to a U.S. P-8 Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft, almost causing a mid-air collision. That report was quickly denied by both Washington and Beijing, however. My colleague, Ankit Panda, offered a good analysis of the announcement here.
Speaking two days ago, at an event organized by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Gen. Brooks noted that he received no orders to stop military-to-military exchanges with the Chinese PLA.
“I am not going to comment on whether that is a true statement or a policy, but I can tell you I was not given any instructions to reduce engagements. We are looking at every opportunity within our authority to do that. Some subject areas are not permitted yet as a matter of policy,” the general said.
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (FY 2000 NDAA) prohibits Chinese-U.S. mil-to-mil contacts that would “create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure” in 12 operational areas, including nuclear operations, military space operations, and joint combat operations.
Brooks also emphasized how important it is to continue mil-to-mil exchanges with China:
“We don’t see a collision between the PLA and the U.S. Army at the present time, so we should be building our relationship while we can to prevent miscalculation, to prevent misunderstanding. There is a common language among soldiers anywhere in the world, even if you are not linguistically connected. The foundational trust relationships, the people-to-people engagements that are so important in international diplomacy — militaries play a part in that.”
U.S. Army Pacific, encompassing the Pentagon’s principle ground forces in the Pacific, fields around 80,000 ground troops stationed over a geographically diverse area, stretching from Alaska to Japan and South Korea (where the U.S. 8th Army is stationed).
The number of mil-to-mil dialogues has risen sharply in the last few years (see Shannon Tiezzi’s analysis here). Of course, there are limits to what these exchanges can accomplish, as various experts have pointed out. Still, they can be useful in helping to defuse crises more quickly (preventing them may be too tall of an order for such gatherings). In addition, mil-to-mil dialogues on sensitive subjects such as cyberwar can help shape international norms for new war-fighting domains (e.g., the appropriate use of cyber weapons during times of conflict) and clear up misunderstandings.
For 2015, according to Gen. Brooks, the principal effort of U.S. Army Pacific will be the participation of soldiers in a number of multilateral exercises in an ever expanding number of countries including Thailand, South Korea, and the Philippines), which the army will be using as a “training pathway.”
For that purpose, the U.S. Army announced in 2014 the creation of a small unit (a skeleton force of around 700 troops), which will deployed for six month or longer in the region and “island hop” from training site to training site. This is known as the “Pacific Pathways” concept and has caused some criticism from the U.S. Marine Corps.