A glass half-full? US–China strategic dialogue
24 Jun 2013|
President Barack Obama talks with President Xi Jinping of China at the Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands in Rancho Mirage, Calif., June 7, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

The limited interaction of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) with the outside world has been a major source of concern related to China’s military rise. Of particular worry is the fact that there still isn’t any substantial strategic dialogue between the US and China. Their ‘Strategic and Economic Dialogue’ has been rather superficial and subject to being cancelled on occasion. But recent signs are that both sides see the need to deepen the dialogue.

As PACOM Commander Admiral Samuel Locklear recently pointed out, Sino-US relations will remain competitive and miscommunications could become a serious issue during crisis. Managing crises requires both sides establishing clear lines of strategic communications, ‘rules of the road’, and mutual understanding about each other’s signals. Otherwise, the consequences could be disastrous. While both sides don’t have to love each other, they have to understand each other, including where they differ. It’s therefore encouraging that American and Chinese analysts are engaged in an increasingly open and frank discussion on these issues. A deepening web of 1.5 and 2-track US–China strategic dialogue is emerging. The CSIS Pacific Forum, for example, has organised a 1.5 track dialogue with Chinese counterparts on strategic issues, including military-to-military relations and, for the first time this year, a China–US Dialogue on Space Security.

The dialogue’s findings suggest that both sides can exchange divergent views on critical issues such as the organising principles of the strategic relationship; crisis management, including during contingencies potentially involving nuclear weapons; the importance and limitations of ‘signalling’; cross domain deterrence; cyber; and crisis management in space. ASPI’s own tenth annual 1.5 track dialogue with the China International Institute for Strategic Studies (CIISS) just concluded in Beijing also suggested that China’s think tank elites are more open to direct military-to-military exchanges between Washington and Beijing. For them, President Xi Xinping’s pledge for ‘new type of great power relationship’ allows the PLA to approach the US military on a more equal footing, opening avenues for strategic dialogue. The question, then, isn’t so much if but how to improve Sino-US military relations.

Big announcements about the beginning of official bilateral military-to-military relations carry significant risks. Increased exchanges won’t solve the underlying structural challenge in US–China relations; that Washington finds it next to impossible to accommodate Beijing’s claims. China has so far failed to explain what exactly this new ‘great power relationship’ entails. Moreover, any effort to initiate an official military-to-military relationship could easily fall victim to a future round of US arms sales to Taiwan or PLA assertiveness in the East China Sea. Aware of the high potential for disruption in the strategic relationship, Chinese elites continue to insist that a significant level of ‘trust’ (without defining what that means) is a precondition for official US–China strategic exchanges. Finally, while Chinese think-tank elites might be in favour of such a step, it’s entirely unclear if the PLA would support it.

As a result, initiatives below the level of official bilateral strategic relations might be more fruitful. Rather than announcing that they’re establishing an official military-to-military dialogue, they could just do it. One possible avenue is to increase the rate of high-level military visits. For example, in April this year, the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, visited his Chinese counterpart, General Fang Fenghui, Chief of the PLA General Staff, in Beijing. His visit was, in part, to signal America’s commitment to stand by its Japanese ally in the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands dispute. But both sides also agreed to hold a joint military exercise on humanitarian disaster relief and a joint anti-piracy drill between the two navies in the Gulf of Aden. Prior to Dempsey’s visit, China had already accepted a US invitation to participate in RIMPAC 2014, which is one of America’s largest multilateral military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region, which involved 22 countries in 2012.

This is where Australia could play a more active role. To circumvent some of the problems involved in bilateral military-to-military relations, the US might seek to increasingly stress multilateral settings for engagement with the PLA. In the context of Australia’s new strategic dialogue with China, Canberra could take the initiative and invite China and the US to participate in a trilateral exercise in Northern Australia, built around the US Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) in Darwin. Such a step might not only help increase trust between the ADF and the PLA but also build further bridges between Chinese and American forces. ASPI’s recent trip to Beijing indicated that this is an idea worth exploring.

Obviously, better military-to-military exercises with the PLA aren’t the silver bullet for mediating tensions in US–China strategic relations. The potential for serious miscalculation will remain high. But Cold War history suggests that some form of strategic trust is required (and possible) between potential adversaries to avert major power war. And contrary to conventional wisdom, the US and China are incrementally working towards a mutual understanding of strategic convergence and divergence.

Benjamin Schreer is a senior analyst at ASPI. Image courtesy of The White House.