China and U.S. defense policies have been changing. America’s arms sales to Taiwan in 2010 led to a disruption in bilateral military ties, followed by a break in security cooperation and dialogue. It wasn’t until president Hu’s visit to the US early this year that the relationship recovered. Since security issues were part of the China-US strategic and economic dialogue in Washington in May, the Chinese sent a military delegation for the first time, led by Deputy Chief of the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA, General Ma Xiaotian. Yet the main points from the meeting weren’t military relations but security concerns, such as the issue of regional security.
Later in May, when PLA Chief of Staff Chen Bingde visited the US, the issue of military relationship was discussed in earnest. Unlike other senior military officials, Chen is responsible for commanding operations, which enabled a frank discussion on the differences between US and the Chinese militaries and the possibility of cooperation. It was seen as an eye-opener when the US opened the doors of several military bases and training camps to Chinese visitors. The Obama administration’s decision to open up some sensitive military installations, which might have left right-wingers ill at ease, can be interpreted as a sign of goodwill towards China as well as reciprocation of China’s gesture to open up its own military bases, such as the PLA Second Artillery Command Post, to the US.
The reasons for many of the recent moves such as the US extending an olive branch to China, the high-profile White House reception for President Hu and the opening up of sensitive military facilities can be summarized as follows:
Firstly, political relations between the two countries have gradually improved and developed, and the deepening of dialogue on security issues has guaranteed the smooth development of China-US military exchanges.
Secondly, China’s capabilities have been greatly enhanced especially in the last decade, along with the strengthening of its military power, and this has led the US to pay close attention to China’s military development.
Thirdly, although the US has adopted aggressive policies in the Asia-Pacific region, its fundamental interest still lies in maintaining stability in the region instead of sparking off conflicts or causing direct confrontations.
From my point of view, relatively stable security relations will endure for a while. With the US presidential election just around the corner, Obama needs to score diplomatic points while trying to avoid losing points for issues like North Korea’s nuclear program. There’s not much room for the US to show off its talents in northeast Asia and keeping China close will reinforce Obama’s image. On a deeper level, with China and the US becoming more and more interdependent, direct confrontation benefits no one.
There are several issues in China-US relations that are worthy of our attention:
1. The close relations stem from the overlapping strategic interests
Obama changed the Bush Administration’s anti-terrorism policies, and US interests in the Asia-Pacific region have grown since the end of 2009. Some Chinese scholars see this as an indication that the US is “back in Asia”. I beg to differ. The US never “left Asia,” it just changed its policy to serve its global strategy. While for China, the third parties – North Korea, South Korea and Japan – which are an inevitable part of China-US relations, should be handled delicately. Under many circumstances, these countries’ policies towards China are closely connected with changes in American policies towards China. Some neighboring countries have clearly drawn in their horns since the improvements in China-U.S. relationship early this year. Hence China needs to move towards stabilizing relations with the US as well as promoting harmony with its neighbors.
2. US arms sales to Taiwan are still a “time bomb” buried beneath the China-US relationship
The recent US attempt to sell F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan was taken as a move that would have severely damaged China’s core interests. There will undoubtedly be a series of responses from China, but we ought to ponder whether it’s necessary to suspend military ties immediately. From China’s perspective, we might even be able to play it this way – tell the Americans to go ahead with the sale and before long see the weapons back in the hands of PLA. Dealing with tricky issues like this is just like playing a game of chess, which demands patience and wits. Wise players have great vision and are always able to plan a few steps ahead. Wisdom and strategic thinking are required from both China and the US in order to better respond to the thorny issue of arms sales.
3. The South China Sea issue will be a touchstone for the China-US relationship
There has been a spate of conflicts and frictions between China and Vietnam over disputed territory in the South China Sea. The escalating tension has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Vietnam. China has shown restraint in reaching consensus with the leaders of other countries concerned. However, by seizing the reef and plundering its oil, Vietnam has tested China’s tolerance and turned the principle of “putting aside disagreements and seeking common development” into ” putting aside disagreements and letting them develop”.
To tackle the South China Sea issue, in my opinion, the Chinese people’s awareness of our maritime rights must be improved. The majority of Chinese people are clearly aware of the China’s land area of 9.6 million km², but have no notion of the 3.6 million km² of its maritime territory. We have to admit that differences do exist between China and the US in understanding the South China Sea issue. I am afraid it is a fantasy to believe that the US will confront China for some relevant countries in the region.
4. China’s military build-up will be a double-edged sword for China-US security relations
Reports published in recent years indicate that the US has begun to pay increased attention to the development of China’s military forces. The US has been concerned that China is challenging it, whether by conventional or nuclear weapons. To some extent, these concerns have evolved into a kind of anxiety. Communication with China’s PLA is aimed at acquiring an in-depth understanding of the country’s progress in defense and the modernization of its military. From this point of view, stronger military exchanges are indispensable in order to dispel mistrust between the two countries.
Another area causing particular concern from both sides is cyber attack and major investments in cyber-warfare. Not long ago, China’s Defense Ministry announced the launch of a unit known as the “Blue Cyber Team,” which has quickly become a hot topic. It should be pointed out that the cyber unit was set up to meet global demand for digitalization. Military affairs are always among the most tech-sensitive spheres and the process of transition will certainly move forward along with the development of productive forces.
Technically, there is no substantial difference between China’s cyber army and its US counterparts. However, strategically speaking, differences do exist and are fundamental. Our cyber unit strictly adheres to a position of self-defense and its sole duty is defending China’s cyber security and launching a necessary counterattack only in response to an attack, in contrast to America’s preemptive strikes, which seem widespread.