Editor’s Note: This piece is adapted from a new report published by the National Bureau of Asian Research. The full report, entitled “U.S.-China Relations in Strategic Domains,” is available online.
Senior Defense Department leadership clarified this week that China’s invitation to the 2016 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises still stands, despite calls from Capitol Hill for its withdrawal. Opponents to Chinese participation argue that the United States should impose costs for China’s increasingly aggressive actions in the South China Sea. However, military-to-military (mil-mil) — which include multilateral and bilateral exercises but encompass a wide range of activities that serve as confidence-building and deconfliction measures — play an important role in the broader U.S.–China relationship, serving as a channel for sustained dialogue and conflict management.
Former head of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Samuel Locklear, during a keynote address at an event this Tuesday co-hosted by the National Bureau of Asian Research, advanced this view, noting that China’s participation in RIMPAC 2014 was a “very big success” and that Washington “should do all that [it] can to keep the PLA engaged in international military forums.” His comments come at a time where mil-mil relations between the United States and China are growing ever more consequential, in light of recent developments in the Asia-Pacific. Increasing militarization in the region and Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea heighten the need for mil-mil contacts as a way to manage tensions, ensure stability, and communicate each sides’ respective interests to avoid miscalculations.
Both Washington and Beijing have acknowledged the importance of the U.S.–China relationship for maintaining stability in the Asia-Pacific. Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping jointly advocated for a more mature and robust mil-mil relationship during respective state visits in November 2014 and September 2015. Clearly both sides want to avoid military tensions and armed conflict because they recognize that conflict would be disastrous for both countries and catastrophic for the region.
However, the United States and China share a long history of highs and, more frequently, lows in the mil-mil domain, given its correlation to overall political ties. The mil-mil relationship took root during the Sino–Soviet split. But mil-mil relations fluctuated in the following years, subject to the ripple effects of the Tiananmen Square incident, the cross-strait crisis in 1995 and 1996, NATO’s accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the EP-3 incident, and arms sales to Taiwan.
Mil-mil ties were always reestablished after these crises subsided. All the more, the type and sophistication of mil-mil ties have markedly increased, to include a first-ever naval exercise involving cross-deck helicopter landings in 2013, the completion of an air annex, and an increase in the number of high-level exchanges, among others. The adaptability to change and fluctuations in the strategic environment reflects an overall maturation of the bilateral relationship and should signal confidence going forward, not cynicism. In particular, there is now a heightened awareness about the need for more restraint in suspending ties. For example, Admiral Harry Harris, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, was welcomed in November 2015 by Chinese counterparts, despite the USS Lassen’s freedom of navigation operation in the South China Sea a few days earlier. A new round of arms sales to Taiwan late last year also did not result in suspension of mil-mil activities, serving as another solid indicator.
Yet the mil-mil program between the United States and China could be further optimized in the near term through collaboration in areas of shared interests. This includes enhancing communication mechanisms to reduce miscalculations and assuage differences. For example, they could mutually determine the correct mix of mil-mil activities or clarify interests to the other party.
Longer term, the development of a collaborative agenda could both increase security and strengthen the relationship in important ways. There seems to be scope — based off the success of extra-regional initiatives such as the Gulf of Aden exercises — for the United States and China to develop a framework of mil-mil engagement through activities that manage each other’s important constraints and deal with existing challenges.
Additionally, Beijing and Washington must establish appropriate mechanisms for managing tensions in areas where interests diverge. A point of contention on the Chinese side has been U.S. congressional oversight, which Beijing views as a major hindrance to mil-mil progress. Washington should be more vocal in emphasizing the relevant role of Congress and should actively engage with Capitol Hill during mil-mil exchanges — for example, by increasing the involvement of key members and staff, as well as congressional representation at the Defense Consultative Talks and major mil-mil exercises.
Further options for mitigating tensions in areas of conflicting interests include pursuing trilateral security dialogues with U.S. allies to demonstrate the impact that such relationships have on regional stability. Over the longer term, both sides should work to address common challenges, such as the threats posed by North Korea or in the emerging domains of space and cyberspace. Ultimately, the key to mil-mil cooperation will be moving beyond a relationship defined by the satisfaction of each party with bilateral exchanges and embracing a new paradigm in which Sino–U.S. mil-mil engagement makes real contributions to regional and global security.
Roy D. Kamphausen is Senior Vice President for Research and Director of the Washington, D.C., office at the National Bureau of Asian Research. Jessica Drun is a Bridge Award Fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research.
Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kevin V. Cunningham, U.S. Navy