China: Engagement vs. Estrangement


“We welcome Chinese participation, and we welcome quite frankly the growth of China as a military power in the Pacific. There is nothing wrong with that.”

Admiral Harry Harris, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, made that statement recently when discussing the acceptance by China’s People’s Liberation Army-Navy (PLA-N) of an invitation to take part in RIMPAC, the world’s largest international maritime exercise. RIMPAC will take place in June off the coast of Hawaii, and for the first time in its 23 previous iterations, will include PLA-N forces. As a matter of fact, this will also mark the first time any Chinese forces have ever taken part in a large, U.S. military-led naval exercise, anywhere.

For some, the fact that the number two U.S. admiral in the Pacific theater — his immediate boss is ADM Sam Locklear, commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific Command area of operations — would make a statement that “we welcome” the growth of China as a military power lacks credulity, or is grossly Pollyannaish, or worse. I disagree. There is more to gain by engaging with the Chinese where we have shared or common interests, than there is by continuing to treat and view their rise in almost exclusively negative terms, or by thinking the United States can contain that rise in some way through isolation.

First, hearkening back to the omnipresent importance of the narrative, our words absolutely matter, but what matters most is that the deeds match the words. The lack of that alignment is precisely what does us in (impacts our reputation, our credibility, our cachet, etc.) with unintended strategic communication missteps in examples like “the pivot”, the Syria red line, and a host of other examples that Wikileaks and Snowden have made public. Furthermore, when we look to the west, as President Obama’s recent trip shows, our audience is not only — nor at times even primarily — China. Foreign audiences are still studying and weighing our words with painstaking effort; and words without synchronized action eventually mean about as much as campaign promises. Ultimately, we must be able to account for not only the intention of the words, images, and deeds, but perhaps even more importantly, how they will be perceived, interpreted, and then translated by our multiple audiences. Thus, we need to find the fundamental and harmonic frequencies — those that resonate best and most deeply — and then zero in on transmitting them in an unrelenting fashion.  As George Bernard Shaw once said, “The single biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has taken place.”

This skillset is certainly not lost on our Chinese brethren, as described in an article in the Washington Free Beacon last month, which cited a study on the PLA’s embrace of a concept called “Three Warfares”, produced for the Office of Net Assessment. This report highlights the emphasis being placed on “psychological, media, and legal attacks” by China as part of an effort to “diminish or rupture U.S. ties with the South China Sea littoral states and deter governments from providing forward basing facilities or other support.” According to the report, the Pentagon defines psychological warfare as “efforts to influence or disrupt an enemy’s decisions-making capabilities, to create doubts, foment anti-leadership sentiments, and device opponents”. As such, this darker side of strategic communication — information operations — would include actions such as increasing diplomatic pressure, false narratives, harassment, and other forms of media or public opinion warfare.

So how does one go about countering the so-called Three Warfares? The report advocates, logically enough, three distinct approaches: forceful legal action (“lawfare”), freedom of navigation exercises (presence), and bolstering public diplomacy (strategic messaging). Putting aside the legal lane for the lawyers leaves physical engagement and communication. Returning to Admiral Harris’s comment about welcoming the rise of China as a military power in the Pacific, I do not think his remark stretches credulity at all. Nor do I believe that he made this statement off the cuff. Instead, this measured and strategic outlook is the result of several years of critical thinking honed while a student at Harvard, Georgetown, and Oxford, and earned on the job in challenging positions wearing dual hats (a NATO one in Naples, Italy, and a State Department one in his most recent job as Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff). Both of those positions repeatedly reinforced — and his current one undoubtedly even further underscores — that in this increasingly globalized and hyper-connected world, very rarely, if ever, does a large challenge or threat to security affect only one nation; nor can the U.S. be everywhere, being all things to all people. Thus, working together, building and then leveraging partner capability and capacity are the bread and butter; the keys to confronting and then overcoming those shared transnational and even trans-regional threats and challenges.

It is also a relatively safe bet that he is in lockstep with his boss, who just last week reiterated that climate change was the biggest long-term threat to the Asia Pacific region, emphasizing,

… the increasing frequency of storms, the increasing likelihood that large tsunamis would impact as we’ve seen in Aceh and we’ve seen in Japan, impacting large population areas which will put many people at risk and disrupt the security environment.  And you add to that the fact that 70% of all major disasters occur in my area of responsibility.

And the admiral is not alone, nor is Mother Nature the only culprit. The recent multinational effort still underway in trying to locate and discern what exactly took place with Malaysia Airlines flight MH 370 shows that we can work together in close proximity and cover a much wider operating area than any one nation attempting to “go it alone.”  This activity has reminded some of the South China Sea Workshop Process started in 1989, which is a continuing dialogue process that aims to prevent, or at least mitigate, potential conflicts by exploring areas of cooperation among the littoral states in the South China Sea area. We can pursue this line of reasoning further. There are many shared challenges and threats to security that confront both China and the United States, as well as the other inhabitants of the Asia-Pacific neighborhood. Even with “the pivot,” we cannot and should not attempt to be everywhere, patrolling every strait, ensuring access to every common, enforcing freedom to all navigation, countering every pirate, etc. To the extent that we can start/continue to rely upon another nation/other nations to bring their considerable capability and capacity to the table to cooperate and collaborate — even pursuing the same objectives in parallel and for different reasons — still yields a net complementary benefit and helps to serve our greater national interests.

Furthermore, as these examples show, threats and challenges do not have to be existential to create bonds. True, the bonds, like the threats and challenges, can be temporal and thus temporary; and the magnitude of the threat can also affect the strength and duration of those bonds. But what can make these bonds eternal is the element of trust, which is built primarily through persistent engagement, working together to confront and overcome shared threats and challenges, and undergirded by open, honest, and transparent communications. An example of such messaging took place a couple weeks ago when U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel met with both Chinese President Xi Jinping and Minister of Defense General Chang Wanquan. Secretary Hagel asserted that he U.S. seeks military ties with China “to deepen practical cooperation in areas of common interest, and to manage competition and differences through openness and communication.” President Xi reciprocated this when he responded that the secretary’s visit to China “this time will definitely push forward the development of our new model of military-to-military relationship.”

Granted, we have to apply a healthy dose of realism to this discussion; thus, we need to remember that China, as any other power, will operate first and foremost to support, protect, and further their own national interests. In fact, General Chang specifically addressed this shortly after the meeting with President Xi when he emphasized that “with the latest developments in China, it can never be contained,” and later added, “I’d like to reiterate that the territorial sovereignty issue is China’s core interest.” Thus, China may not share our perspective or agree to the same set of shared challenges; nor might it see any benefit or welcome working with others to confront those challenges, as evidenced by General Chang’s comment, “We are prepared at any time to cope with all kinds of threats and challenges … The Chinese military can assemble as soon as summoned, fight any battle and win.”  But based on their words, deeds, and sizeable expenditure of resources when it comes to humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, counter-piracy missions, counter-terrorism missions, and relations with other inhabitants of the Asia-Pacific region, the Chinese already confront many of the same threats and challenges to security in the region that the United States does. Furthermore, they have publicly acknowledged the reality of working together — or at least in close proximity to — the U.S. military, as well as those of the other maritime security forces in the region, by signing the “code of conduct” agreement announced last week between the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations, the Chinese chief of the PLA-N, and the heads of 22 other nations’ maritime security forces.

Of course there are already caveats to when and how the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea will be enforced or be applicable, but it does establish English as the standard language used in bridge-to-bridge communication, as well as using U.S.-standard code word terminology and phonetic alphabet for abbreviated transmissions. There will be growing pains as this is the region’s first code of conduct for unplanned encounters between ships and aircraft. When we meet each other in the air or on/under the sea, friction will more than likely be present. However, this is more than we had several months ago when the USS Cowpens was almost collided with by a PLA-N cruiser. As Admiral Wu Shengli, the PLA-N head, stated, “This is a milestone document that is highly significant to navies in the region in promoting communication and reducing misjudgment and misunderstanding.” In addition, this is a direct result of doing exactly what both ADM Harris and ADM Locklear have called for: engaging more often, more closely, and more directly.

The top two economies in the world benefit far more by working together against threats to their common markets and pursuits, than working in isolation or even at crossed purposes. As the United States has learned and shown successfully in Latin America, the Caribbean, and Europe, when we build partnerships based on persistent engagement and mutual trust, then as our partners’ capabilities and eventually their capacities grow, good things happen. Ideal? Not always. Good?  More often than not. Thus, in partial response to John Mearsheimer’s lingering question of “Can China rise peacefully?” my answer would be “Maybe.”  But we, the United States and our vitally important partners and allies in the region, have far more say in that than some would like to admit, particularly when we work together. More engagement, not less, is the recommendation for building trust between two powers like China and the United States. Presence, adherence to the rule of law, and messaging — both physical (training and exercises, and sharing of best practices) as well as verbal — our Americanized version of the Three Warfares.

Again, words matter; however, the “pivot/rebalance” is nothing without action. Therefore, it comes down to presence: persistent physical presence with a purpose. Unpredictable or shadow presence like episodic unplanned/unsynchronized flyovers, ship visits tied to no exercise, brief touch-and-go of a few boots on the ground, and promises of future capabilities have little lasting effect. Forward-basing the USS George Washington and the U.S. 7th Fleet in Japan makes a statement; permanently basing another aircraft carrier or a large deck amphibious ship or even one of our hospital ships in Singapore makes a statement; moving an air wing/element from Kadena to Vietnam or the Philippines makes a statement. But so, too, do the appointments of high quality professionals with political clout to key leadership positions like ambassador and assistant secretary, as does leaving these posts vacant for extended periods of time.

Take back control of the narrative — say what we think, say what we will do, and then do it. This action should help answer the questions increasingly being asked about our commitment, our credibility, and our focus. We must make our case to the world of what is and what is not acceptable behavior (based on international law), announce treaty obligations (both what allies expect of us, as well as what we expect from them), and then continue to engage often and directly with our Chinese counterparts and partners and allies in the region. We can start with shared and overlapping interests, and work outward from there to see what else is possible.

Ultimately, the bottom line is this: I see more good from pursuing a strategy of engagement than one of estrangement. I think we do our interests and ourselves a disservice by only painting the rise of China as solely adversarial. Competitor? At times, absolutely. Occasional cooperator and collaborator? Why not? If we continue to label “them” as adversarial (or even as being more prone to competitor than collaborator), we are likely to see that become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A realistic perspective says we have to take steps toward creating the ideal, while always planning for the worst. We have enough plans already on the shelf to deal with all of the negatives should “competition” turn into “conflict.” So why not focus the majority of the rest of our time on taking the long view, being assertive but not aggressive, and focusing on potential areas for cooperation to influence a positive strategic environment and series of relationships that seek to remove as many sources of potential conflict as possible? We should take advantage of this “rise” while we can, and while both countries are here near the top of the heap, because ultimately, both of us will not be here forever.


CDR Elton C. Parker III is currently serving as the Special Assistant to the President and Military Assistant to the Provost of National Defense University.  A career naval aviator, his most recent tour was as Speechwriter and Special Assistant to the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe.  The views expressed here are his own and do not represent the views, opinions, or positions of the National Defense University, The U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.


Photo credit: Official U.S. Navy Imagery