Today marks the start of Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC) 2014, the largest naval exercise in the world. For the first time, China is among the participants in this US-organized exercise. China’s participation in RIMPAC is unlikely to fundamentally change the nature of US-China military-to-military relations. However, in the midst of angry rhetoric on both sides (particularly at the Shangri-La Dialogue), it’s easy to forget that the military aspect of the US-China relationship has actually been on the upswing in recent years.
Coming from fragile ties
Back in 2010, military relations were so fragile that China cut them off completely in retaliation for a US arms sale to Taiwan. At that time, then-US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates noted in frustration that the military-to-military relationship was the only area were progress was “held hostage” by other concerns. He then publicly repeated the desire of US President Barack Obama and then-Chinese President Hu Jintao for “sustained and reliable military-to-military contacts at all levels that reduce miscommunication, mis–understanding and miscalculation.”
At the time of Gates’ remarks, freezes on military-to-military contacts were the exception rather than the norm. Such contacts had been severed numerous times in the past, usually for precisely the reason they were cut off in 2010: as an angry Chinese response to a US arms sale to Taiwan. How–ever, since the resumption of military-to-military contacts in January 2011, the military aspect of the relationship has been remarkably stable.
After Gates’ ice-breaking visit to China in 2011, a slew of official military-to-military contacts followed. General Chen Bingde, Chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Staff, came to the US in 2011, and Minister of Defense Liang Guanglie followed in 2012. Liang’s visit was a huge step forward for US-China military-to-military relations. Many had assumed China would cancel the trip in the wake of yet another US arms sale to Taiwan, and the diplomatic tensions arising from the Chen Guangcheng incident. Liang himself said that his visit to the US “is a kind of turnover in the China-US military relationship.”
Since that “turnover,” US-China military contacts have been more frequent than ever before. Both Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of US Pacific Command, and then-Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta made the journey to China in 2012. China’s Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan came to the US in 2013, and new Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was in China earlier this year. General Martin Demp–sey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Chinese coun–terpart Fang Fenghui also traded visits in 2013 and 2014.
Keeping military-to-military contacts stable and regular has been a stated goal for Obama and Hu as well as Xi Jinping. In part, this may be a sign that China in particular is more interested in such a dialogue. In the past, many experts felt that China did not value the security dialogues very highly, and so such meetings became diplomatic scapegoats, sacrificed to prove China’s displeasure with various US actions. Now, however, China seems just as interested in having serious discussions about US military policy (especially the “rebalance to Asia”) as the US is to speak with China.
Meanwhile, as high-level talks have become more routine, the two sides have begun to increase joint drills—not just RIMPAC, but bilateral drills as well. The US and China have held a number of joint exercises on search and rescue operations, anti-piracy, humani–tarian assistance, and disaster relief. These are small steps forward, but they still represent progress. China has been particularly ada- mant that its participation in RIMPAC should not be easily dismissed; a Xinhua commentary argued firmly that the RIMPAC drill was “not window-dressing for China-US ties.” Meanwhile, US Rear Admiral Mark Mont–gomery also sees recent joint activities as signs “of a modestly improving relationship.”
Obviously, military-to-military cooperation, whether in the form of joint exercises or high-level dialogue, is not a panacea for tensions between the US and China. It also has not been as effective as some had hoped in preventing accidents, as the near-collision of the USS Cowpens with a PLA Navy vessel showed. As James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon argue persuasively in their new book, Strategic Re–assurance and Resolve, the US and China are particularly in need of greater access to each other’s military leaders in the case of a crisis—and of agreements regard–ing proper maneuvering and signaling on the open seas to prevent such crises from arising in the first place. The US and China haven’t reached this goal yet, but doing so will be impossible without the sort of regular military contact the two countries are starting to develop.