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The Built-In Risks Of China-U.S. Military Relations

History says a hegemonic power and a rising power may be inevitably bound for war. What both Washington and Beijing can do to avoid that.

Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel review the honor guard in Beijing
Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel review the honor guard in Beijing
Chen Qin

BEIJING — U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s recently completed his first trip to China since taking over at the helm of the Pentagon, and there were plenty of signs along his four-day itinerary to signal a shifting military relationship between the two world powers.

Hagel was the first foreign dignitary to embark on China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, which was both a sign of a new openness in the Chinese military and the importance it attaches to Sino-U.S. military relations.

Still, not all is smooth sailing. The occasional verbal sparring between Hagel and top Chinese military officials reflects the making of a new type of relationship between the two countries — a straight answer to a straight question.

At an April 8 joint press conference, Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan criticized America’s stance on the territorial disputes between China and U.S. allies Japan and the Philippines. He claimed that China “will not compromise” on safeguarding its territory, and “the Chinese army is always on call, ready to fight and to win.”

Meanwhile, Fan Changlong, China’s vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, went on to point out that “Chinese people are not happy” about Hagel’s statement a week earlier in Hawaii when meeting Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera. Hagel had stressed that on the Diaoyu Islands issue, the United States strongly opposes any unilateral attempt to weaken the administrative jurisdiction of Japan, and that the U.S. supports Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s plan for the legalization of collective self-defense. He said that coercion and intimidation can only lead to conflict.

A weather vane

That China and America are both “straightforward” in their attitude reflects that substantial differences in strategic interests are very real. And yet, the open dialogue also reflects a shared understanding that increasing mutual trust — and reducing miscalculation — is in the mutual interest of both nations.

When meeting with Hagel on April 9, President Xi said that the two countries should adhere to no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and enhancing pragmatic collaboration in various fields. The effect should be controlling differences and sensitive issues so as to steer the new Sino-U.S. “big power relationship” in the right direction.

Military relations have a special significance in Sino-U.S. relations and are often interpreted as a weather vane or barometer. In the 1980s, the military relationship enjoyed a brief honeymoon period, during which the two nations cooperated closely on armament and military-technical levels. Unfortunately, this didn’t last long. After America imposed sanctions on China following the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, there was a long period of stagnation in the two countries’ military exchanges.

Subsequent events such as the Taiwan Strait crisis, the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia, the South China Sea plane collision and U.S. arms sales to Taiwan have all contributed to the many ups and downs of the two countries’ military relations.

These fluctuations are related to the largely unspoken nature of the antagonism between the two countries: the United States wants to maintain its hegemony while China wants to expand its security position.

From a historical perspective, rarely can the relations between a hegemonic power and a rising country remain stable. Conflicts tend to arise. This makes their military exchanges all the more important, since only the straightforward dialogue of their common concerns can the two countries dissolve potential conflicts and maintain stability.

But the reality is that Sino-U.S. military exchanges lag far behind their other bilateral exchanges. Of course, the senstive nature of military matters makes it virtually impossible for China and the United States to go into detailed discussions like allies. And so for the time being, the China-U.S. military cooperation and exchanges are mainly limited to humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and peacekeeping.

Indeed, the next phase for expansion is cooperation on military education and training following last year’s meeting in California between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama.

Indeed, now that Obama is no longer under re-election pressure, he is freer in his policies and bound to be more assertive in his strategy of rebalancing Asia-Pacific policy. At the same time, since China’s new leadership took office its foreign policy has shifted from a low-profile position to a more confident stance and is hoping to gain the international image and status that goes with being a major power.

A reset on Sino-U.S. military cooperation can help circumvent the historical trap of a war between a rising power and an existing one. Differences of interests are bound to exist, and the first step is not to pretend that they don’t.

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