Chinese President Xi Jinping’s trip to Washington in September was not short on fanfare, including a 21-gun salute and a state dinner replete with toasts to the world’s most important bilateral relationship. But beneath the pomp lay a longstanding tension between the two militaries that is fueled by allegations of hacking and expansionism in the Pacific.
In a recent interview in the Pentagon, a U.S. military official who specializes in China expressed concern that Chinese actions in cyberspace and at sea “are significantly undermining the support within the United States government for aspects of the mil-to-mil relationship.”
Some officials across the Defense Department have grown wary of engagement with China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA), according to the official, who asked not to be named. “There are positions within all branches that are voicing significant concern over the Chinese activities and calling into question” the utility of engagement, he said.
The bilateral military tension has not subsided despite increased engagement between the two militaries in recent years and, observers say, is gnawing away at any goodwill generated by that cooperation.
A string of high-profile cyber-attacks against the U.S. government and American businesses that have been blamed on China has increased pressure on Washington to respond more decisively to Chinese cyber-hacking.
Beijing’s territorial claims in the South and East China Seas have also ratcheted up tensions and threatened to spark clashes as the U.S. contemplates stepping up naval patrols in response to China’s military buildup in the region. Beijing insists it has sovereignty over the disputed territory, while Washington counters that its military has the right to ensure unfettered navigation in international waters.
The disagreement speaks to a larger rift in bilateral relations: Some in Beijing have taken exception to President Obama’s so-called Asia Pivot to reassert America’s presence in the Pacific, calling it a thinly veiled attempt to constrain Beijing’s influence in its own backyard. The administration denies that the purpose of the realignment is to counteract Chinese hegemony, but it also says that Beijing needs to abide by international rules and assume responsibilities that are commensurate with its status as the world’s second-largest economy.
Reliable military-to-military channels between the two heavyweights will be indispensable to preventing a dangerous escalation on the high seas. Yet the two powers’ strategic interests are repeatedly trumping the individual efforts of officials to build trust and rapport.
Lyle Goldstein, an associate professor at the U.S. Naval War College, worries that the closeness of cooperation between the two militaries is often dependent on personalities rather than underpinned by a structural mechanism. Engagement has to go “way beyond” tête-à-têtes, said Goldstein, a researcher with the college’s China Maritime Studies Institute. “To me, you have to think about institutionalizing a very high level of engagement. And I just don’t hear anybody talking in those terms.”
While the strength of the bilateral military relationship may not be the sum of its parts, personalities do matter. Retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, who was director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 to 2014, described a “great working relationship” with China’s defense attaché in Washington, adding that he occasionally hosted the defense attaché at his home for dinner. “I knew what they were doing and what they were up to, but at the same time, it’s like, get to know each other,” Flynn said.
One key personality in the bilateral military relationship has been U.S. Adm. Jonathan Greenert, who stepped down as chief of naval operations (CNO) in September. Greenert had made better military relations with China one of his priorities. He visited China multiple times in his last year as CNO and conferred regularly with his Chinese counterpart, Adm. Wu Shengli.
At an event at the Brookings Institution in Washington last year, Greenert said he valued a direct line of communication in the event of a confrontation between the two navies at sea. “To me, that’s how you find out if you can trust someone else,” Greenert said. “How much confidence do you have in them? Are you willing to take more risk in them and how much authority do they have through the chain of command and just how tight is it?”
It is perhaps too early to tell whether Greenert’s successor, Adm. John Richardson, will pursue closer military ties with the same vigor. His office did not grant an interview request from The Diplomat.
The Air Force in August issued updated guidance to personnel reminding them of the importance of, and limits on, contacts with the PLA. “With the rise of [China’s] influence in the international community and the increasing capabilities of the Chinese military,” the mil-to-mil relationship “is becoming more crucial than before,” the directive states.
The guidance listed a dozen topical areas in which Air Force personnel are forbidden from communicating with the PLA, including operations related to nuclear weapons, surveillance and reconnaissance, joint war-fighting and space. These no-go zones are not new — they are forbidden by the fiscal 2000 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
When asked if the Pentagon has considered asking Congress to ease some of those restrictions, the U.S. military official who specializes in China said, “It is not something that’s being considered.”
“The fact that we have restrictions on what we … will and will not do with the Chinese shouldn’t surprise anybody,” the official added. “It surprises the Chinese and they raise it constantly to us as an obstacle to better mil-to-mil and they see it as somewhat discriminatory against China.”
The official dismissed that grievance. “We reject that outright because, first of all, we would say if we were to take any of those issues from NDAA and … ask the Chinese to brief us on those and give us access to those aspects of the Chinese military, they’d balk.”
The office of China’s defense attaché in Washington could not be reached for comment, and the Chinese Embassy here did not respond to an interview request.
Chinese scholar Jin Canrong has noted progress in some areas of cooperation between the two militaries. In an article published in the May/June 2015 issue of the Contemporary International Relations journal, Jin, a professor at Renmin University of China, and co-author Wang Bo praised China’s 2014 participation in RIMPAC, a multinational military exercise held in and around the Hawaiian islands. That the U.S. invited China to participate in the exercise, and the latter accepted, was a “remarkable event in the history of Sino-U.S. military relations,” wrote Jin and Wang, adding that “both sides demonstrated interaction that was transparent and well-meaning.”
Yet Jin and Wang also detected an inertia in the bilateral military relationship. “Sino-U.S. military diplomacy lasted for many years with little substantial progress or change,” the pair wrote. “The U.S. has not wanted China to learn how to enhance its military capabilities through participation in military exercises because of the implied threat to U.S. security.”
Increased engagement did not necessarily engender increased trust, they said. “Past exchanges, although extensive, have not resulted in trust being a priority. The severe mistrust is becoming more obvious and destructive and, of late, is intensified by any attitude or action.”
Washington’s reluctance to share its military capabilities with Beijing stems in part from evidence that China’s state-owned firms have benefitted from the theft of U.S. intellectual property. The Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on the Chinese military accused China of using “illicit approaches that violate U.S. laws and export controls to obtain key national security and export restricted technologies.”
Scholars of the Sino-American military relationship say there are some potential areas where the two sides could build trust. One possibility is a multinational anti-piracy effort in the Gulf of Aden to which China has contributed ships. But the Chinese have tended to view that operation as a U.S.-led effort and, as a result, have not embraced its command structure, according to Roy Kamphausen, who heads the National Bureau of Asian Research’s Washington office.
The anti-piracy mission in the Gulf of Aden held promise because it was outside of the Pacific, where there are “less political constraints” on bilateral military engagement, according to the anonymous U.S. military official, who chafed at what he saw as a common theme in China’s military response to international crises: “They insist on working completely bilaterally with the host nation.” Such was the case in China’s response to the search for missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, the outbreak of Ebola, and the devastating typhoon in the Philippines and earthquake in Nepal, the official said.
Goldstein, the Naval War College professor, sees the Ebola crisis as a missed opportunity for the U.S. and Chinese militaries to work together because, he said, there are few individual militaries in the world with the ability to respond on the scale and speed that the crisis demanded. The two militaries have complementary capabilities in lift and logistics, agreed Kamphausen, who said that the best hope for building bilateral cooperation was to pursue “strategic engagement on disaster response.”
What the U.S. military official sees as the PLA’s intransigence, the Chinese may see as an insistence that they be treated as equals in the relationship, according to scholars Jin and Wang. “It is impossible for the U.S. to hold intensive communication and dialogue with China over military matters unless it treats China as an equal,” they wrote.
Despite all of the real or perceived stumbling blocks on the path to closer U.S.-China military ties, there have been positive signs for advocates of greater engagement.
The two armies in June opened a new channel for discussing areas of mutual concern like humanitarian assistance. The Army-to-Army Dialogue Mechanism framework is particularly important to the Chinese “because the PLA is still a heavily ground force-dominated, army-dominated joint force,” said Kamphausen, a former Army officer who served as a U.S. military attaché in Beijing.
President Xi’s visit to Washington more or less coincided with two additional agreements on bilateral military engagement. The two militaries on Sept. 18 agreed to annexes on military crisis notifications and on rules of behavior for air-to-air encounters, according to Col. Wu Qian, a spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense. “The signing of these two annexes marks new progress in the establishment of the two confidence-building mechanisms,” Wu said at a Sept. 24 press conference.
The annexes are meant to head off incidents like the one that occurred in August 2014, when a Chinese jet flew within approximately 30 feet of a U.S. Navy surveillance plane in international airspace, 135 miles east of Hainan island. The annexes are part of a broader Military Maritime Consultative Agreement that Washington and Beijing began in 1998. Completing confidence-building measures for air and maritime behavior are “a net good as far as risk reduction and managing the operational risk to our folks in the field,” the U.S. military official said.
Yet all of the dialogue in the world does not change the simple fact that the American and Chinese militaries reflect the views of their respective governments — one of an incumbent world power and the other of an ascendant world power. “The two militaries, to some extent, are preparing for each other, and that’s in multiple domains,” Kamphausen said. “And so how you can conceive of cooperating with a military that you are simultaneously preparing for as an adversary is a huge challenge.”
About the Author
Sean Lyngaas (@snlyngaas) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.