On a 10-day trip through Asia that ended last week, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel sought to build military ties with allies and partners involved in the U.S. rebalance to the region. He also reached out to China, the presumptive main U.S. competitor in the region, and announced the need for a “new model” of military-to-military relations between the two nations.
As with other aspects of the U.S.-China relationship, military ties between the two countries are underdeveloped, and China remains wary of U.S. intentions.
But the Obama administration, which has its own worries about China, appears to believe that greater cooperation and consultation can produce gains for U.S. interests. Standing alongside Chinese Minster of Defense Chang Wanquan during a joint press conference in Beijing last week, Hagel welcomed the rise of a “stable and prosperous China.” To enhance military-to-military relations between the two countries,
, the United States believes “its approach should be to build a sustained and substantive dialogue to deepen practical cooperation in areas of common interest.”
Referring obliquely to a number of outstanding disputes between the U.S. and China, such as U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, Hagel added that there is a need “to manage competition and manage differences through openness and communication.”
Rep. Randy Forbes, chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces, points to the advantages and limitations of the kind of military-to-military exchanges Hagel outlined. They “can do much to provide context and clarity to the ongoing security relationship between Washington and Beijing,” says Forbes. He cautions, however, that the United States “must never allow these exchanges to undermine our core interest in a peaceful, prosperous Asia or to view such contacts as a panacea.”
“By reassuring U.S. allies and partners of our long-term commitment to the region,” Forbes adds, “the United States will help foster the conditions for long-term peace in the Asia-Pacific far more effectively than any military-to-military exchange.”
But reassuring allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific may prove difficult as those countries face down their large and growing neighbor in disputes linked to core issues of sovereignty and national pride.
China and Japan, for example, continue to dispute the ownership of the Senkaku Islands, which China calls the Diaoyu. Speaking through a translator during his appearance with Hagel, Chang affirmed China’s “indisputable sovereignty” over the islands. On the issue of territorial sovereignty, China “will make no compromise, no concession, no trading” and “not even a tiny bit of violation is allowed,” he said.
Chang took a similarly uncompromising stance toward the Philippines, which he accused of “disguising itself as a victim” and repeatedly breaking promises. “The fact is that it is the Philippines who illegally occupy part of China’s islands and reefs in the South China Sea,” he said. He reiterated that China “does not accept and will not participate in international arbitration” initiated by the Philippines.
But even as China remains steadfast in its rhetoric regarding its territorial claims, a recent analysis
by M. Taylor Fravel and Alastair Iain Johnston indicated that the number of Chinese naval patrols near the Senkaku Islands has decreased since October. The authors suggested that this may indicate a Chinese willingness “not to escalate further, for the time being.” They identified a potential opportunity for positive signaling between China and Japan to gradually dial back hostilities.
Hagel expanded on his ideas
for progress in the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship during remarks at the People’s Liberation Army National Defense University in Beijing. The “new model” would proceed on three tracks: sustained dialogue, practical cooperation and steps to “manage competition and differences through openness and communications.” Hagel pointed specifically to exchanges involving the service chiefs from both countries.
He mentioned a recent incident in which a Chinese captain helped to avert a collision between a U.S. and a Chinese ship. “[The captain’s] effort to de-escalate the situation was informed by having met members of the U.S. Navy and having developed an understanding of the U.S. Navy’s intentions and operating procedures,” Hagel said.
But James Holmes of the Naval War College wonders what exactly face-to-face exchanges could accomplish in terms of building strategic trust and changing Chinese behavior. “We've learned that Beijing's maritime claims are nonnegotiable, and that it's prepared to use its growing assets to enforce them,” he writes in an email to Trend Lines. U.S. policymakers “knew all of that already if we cared to listen to China's words.”
Overall, as Holmes explains, pursuing military-to-military interactions is useful “on the off chance they work,” but “no one should place any great faith in them.” He places the burden of proof on those who are optimistic about the utility of military contacts. “By what mechanism would military officers shape policy among their political masters in Beijing?” he wonders. “Color me skeptical.”
Photo: U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel with Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan, Beijing, China, April 8, 2014 (DOD photo by Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo).