The recent talks between General Chen Bingde, the chief of the General Staff of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), and Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, have hit the headlines. The PLA top military leader’s one-week visit to the United States, the first of its kind in seven years, signals that Chinese-U.S. relations are back on track.
The fact that the PLA delegation included members of the General Staff responsible for operations, intelligence and foreign affairs, as well as senior generals from all branches of the Chinese military and key military districts, was itself testament to the visit’s importance.
In addition to the political agenda, the delegation also had the opportunity to visit several U.S. military installations, some of which were previously closed to foreign militaries. Earlier this year, the Presidents of China and the United States Hu Jintao and Barack Obama agreed on building a stable cooperative partnership between their two countries. Then, only recently, the third round of the Chinese-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue resulted in the establishment of the Chinese-U.S. Strategic Security Dialogue, which will see regular meetings between both countries’ military and civil defense officials.
Indeed, the U.S. and Chinese militaries share certain security concerns. Besides common global threats, such as WMD proliferation, international terrorism, climate change, natural disasters, and sea-lane safety, they face a variety of regional security issues in the Asia Pacific region. First and foremost is the issue of mutual trust and confidence-building. In China, there is concern that Washington does not want to see Beijing become a major player on the global and regional arena, and is therefore trying to constrain its rise. In the United States, there are concerns about the lack of transparency over China’s plans for military development, not to mention the country’s ultimate goals.
This is a classic security dilemma in which each and every indication of military preparation is viewed by the other side as a possible threat to be dealt with using similar measures. Even now, the Chinese and U.S. armed forces in the Asia Pacific region seem to be engaged in a “battle of wills.” The U.S. military thinks China is challenging the United States’ superpower status in the region with its “aircraft carrier killer” – the Dong Feng 21D missile – capable of reaching and hitting U.S. carriers well before the United States can get close enough to the mainland to hit back.
In response, the U.S. Navy wants to increase the combat radius of its surveillance and rapid response capability with sea-based X-47Bs (unmanned combat air systems), to be stationed on new aircraft carriers in the Pacific.
The Chinese see three major obstacles to any development of Chinese-U.S. military relations. U.S. arms sales to Taiwan are their first concern. Then there is the matter of U.S. Navy patrols and reconnaissance within range of Chinese coastal waters. And third come the restrictions on high-tech exports from the United States to China, as well as the legal restrictions limiting the field and scope of bilateral military exchanges (National Defense Authorization Act of 1999). Of course, continuing U.S. arms sales to Taiwan remain a fundamental issue on which the two countries seem implacably opposed.
China constantly reminds the United States that a joint approach to shared mutual concerns needs to be accompanied by genuine respect for each side’s core interests. Taiwan certainly counts as one of China’s core interests and concerns. All these points of disagreement relate directly to the Asia Pacific region, specifically to Northeast Asia, and involve not only China and the United States, but also the most important U.S. allies in the region, South Korea and Japan.
The United States boosted its military cooperation with South Korea and Japan after the tragic incident involving the sinking of the Cheonan frigate and the North Koreans’ shelling of South Korean islands in the Yellow Sea last year. The United States and its regional allies conducted military activities that China perceived as increased hostile air and maritime surveillance and reconnaissance in its coastal waters.
At the same time, the United States, China, South Korea and Japan need to overcome their misunderstandings and misperceptions if they are to deal with the North Korean nuclear issue in the framework of the six party talks, in which Russia is also a key participant. Open communication channels and the constant exchange of information are the only ways to increase transparency and predictability for all key regional players.
The Chinese government published the white paper “China’s National Defense in 2010” in late March, placing a special emphasis on military transparency, foreign interaction and the Chinese military doctrine’s defensive nature. This seems a reasonable approach to solving the security dilemma.
Of course, disagreements on key issues, such as arms sales to Taiwan, will continue to exist, and military tensions between China and the United States may even rise (e.g. due to a possible policy distraction following the U.S. presidential elections or upcoming change in Chinese political and military leadership). Needless to say, having a stable military will help minimize political risks.
This is true not only for China and the United States, but also for Russia and other countries in Northeast Asia and the Asia Pacific region. They all need a well-established system of cooperation on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, environmental protection, joint military training and exercises, observation of each other’s military exercises and mutual training in multilateral mechanisms. But the bottom line for this is, in the words of our Chinese colleagues “respect, trust, reciprocity and mutual benefit.”
Vladimir Petrovsky is Full member of the Russian Academy of Military Sciences