On May 23, 2018, the US Department of Defense announced it had withdrawn an invitation for China to participate in the RIMPAC 2018 multinational naval exercise. The Pentagon said the decision was “an initial response” to what it called China’s militarization of the South China Sea. On May 27, two US Navy warships executed a freedom of navigation operation (FONOP) by sailing within the territorial sea of the Xisha Islands (Paracel Islands) of China. This operation is the seventh FONOP in the South China Sea since Donald Trump has been President, and he has authorized such action once every two months. Does the current incident represent a major setback in Sino-US military relations?
Negative US Attitude and China’s Military Growth
There have been voices in the US opposing military exchanges between the US and China. Before the RIMPAC 2016 exercises, members of Congress asked the US Department of Defense not to invite China to participate in the exercises. John McCain, the Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman and Jack Reed, the Ranking Member of the Committee, wrote a letter to the Secretary of Defense, saying that it was wrong to invite China. In recent years, the media has censured the US military for being too open to having military-to-military exchanges with China. The US had invited China’s senior officers to visit aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and various types of warships, and had also invited China to participate in the RIMPAC and the Cobra Gold joint military exercises but did not receive reciprocal transparency and openness from China. For example, the US side is very interested in the annual Sino-Russia naval exercise, which began in 2012, and has offered to participate or send observers, but China has not agreed to this. As such, the US government and military infer that Sino-US military-to-military exchange is one-way transparency. China has obtained advanced experience from the US, but the US has not received the same from China.
Conversely, China’s military strength has grown rapidly in recent years. China’s land reclamation and facilities construction on the Nansha Islands (Spratly Islands) have strengthened its strategic position in the South China Sea. The US treats this activity as China’s “militarization” in the South China Sea, and as challenging its dominance in security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region. US FONOPs in the South China Sea are ostensibly against China’s excessive maritime claims, which are the excessive territorial sea baselines and the regulation of prior permission of innocent passage through the territorial sea. However, the construction of islands has exacerbated these excessive territorial claims, changing the regional power comparison, and seriously weakening the US leading role in regional security affairs. In this context, it is hard to imagine that the US military has willingness to engage actively with Chinese forces in RIMPAC exercises, which would involve enhancing the capabilities of joint military operations.
Differences in Developing Military Relations
The development of Sino-US military relations consists of three levels: initial communication and understanding, effective exchanges and mutual trust, and cooperation to achieve common strategic goals. Sino-US military relations may have currently entered a downturn, and the cause of this phenomenon may be due to the large philosophical differences between China and the US on military relations in the long term. These differences include policy decisions, implementation methods, and actual effects of military exchanges between the two sides.
Differences in Strategic Positioning
China believes that military relations between the two countries are an important part of bilateral relations. Under the framework of new Sino-US relationships, military relations between the two countries should follow the basic principles of “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, cooperation, and win-win.” However, the US side had not fully accepted the new model of major-country relations proposed by China. The US does not deny that “no conflict, no confrontation” is the basic principle of bilateral relations. For the “mutual respect” principle, China demands that the core interests of each party have equal status, while the US fears giving the wrong impression that they approve of China’s claims on the Taiwan and South China Sea issues. The US will not recognize the right of China to use military power to safeguard sovereignty and maritime rights for the issues of Taiwan and the South China Sea.
The core military interest of the US is to maintain its leading role in the global security domain. The US will not tolerate Sino-US military relations to undermine this core interest of the US. Sino-US military relations have not established consensus for “mutual respect.” With rapid growth, China’s military power has gradually formed an advantage in the Asia-Pacific region. Nonetheless, the US will not tolerate China’s military power threatening its alliances, as well as challenging the US dominant position in security affairs in the Asia-Pacific region. In this context, the US has long been unenthusiastic about military cooperation with China and does not see a “win-win” goal. As such, there are great differences in the strategic positioning of military relations between China and the US.
Differences in Crisis Management
The goal of the US military in the field of crisis control is clear: to promote the rules of behavior in the military field with China similar to the signed agreement on the prevention of incidents on and above the high seas with the former Soviet Union, as well as to establish maritime and air order based on rules between the two countries. The US military intends to do this by using the rules of behavior to avoid maritime and air incidents in peacetime, to ensure the safety of ships and personnel, and to establish communication channels and procedures to control any potential crisis.
In the near future, the military-to-military relationship between China and the US will lack the basis for in-depth development, but neither side will likely risk a path toward dangerous conflict.
In China’s view, the US military has long tried to harm China’s core interests by using ships and airplanes to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance activities in China’s exclusive economic zone, as well as to execute the freedom of navigation operations within the territorial sea of China. These activities by the US are the source of air and sea incidents with China. Since 2015, the US navy warships have executed FONOPs in the South China Sea 11 times. The differences of opinion on both sides are increasingly acute. In this context, the Chinese military is bound to take maritime rights and interests as the primary objective of its operations. The interception of US ships and airplanes is actually an act of safeguarding rights, and as a result, China will not be able to avoid such air and sea conflicts if they arise. Many Chinese fighters have intercepted US spy airplanes even after the two countries signed two confidence-building measures in 2014, including the Notification of Major Military Activities and Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters. The incidents that have occurred in spite of the signed measures underscore the vast differences between China and the US regarding crisis management.
Differences in Positioning in Military Exchanges and Cooperation
At the operational level of military relations, China seeks to promote military exchanges and cooperation between the two militaries to cope with non-traditional security threats jointly, and to add positive factors for new power relations between the two countries. In recent years, China and the US have carried out various forms of exchanges and cooperation in maritime search and rescue, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, counter-piracy, military medical activities, etc. Both sides have also held joint military exercises at sea many times, which reflects a higher level of military relations. China had also been invited to join the RIMPAC and Cobra Gold multilateral military exercises. These operations showed that Sino-US military relations were friendly, but beneath the surface, the foundations of Sino-US military relations are fragile.
The US military will not seek to promote joint military action with China because of its view of China as the largest long-term strategic threat, and the US will not tolerate China improving its military capabilities unilaterally through military exchanges and cooperation with the US. In addition, there is a large gap in the quality and quantity of military power between China and the US. Based upon this premise, the US believes that military exchanges and cooperation will be more beneficial to China. In RIMPAC 2014 and RIMPAC 2016, Chinese ships could only take part in non-critical drills, such as anti-piracy, boarding and searching, maritime medical activities, and submarine rescue. China was not allowed to observe or participate or in critical drills, such as surface warfare, air defense, anti-submarine, landing operations, etc. Clearly, the US does not support full military exchanges and cooperation with China.
The fact that China was not invited to join RIMPAC 2018 highlights the deep divisions in Sino-US military relations. The development of Sino-US military relations appears to be slowly weakening.
China has actively urged the US to eliminate three major obstacles in Sino-US military relations, including measures that discriminate against China, such as the 2000 Defense Authorization Act, arms sales to Taiwan, and military surveillance and reconnaissance operations in offshore China. However, at present, the negative effects of these three obstacles are increasing.
First, the 2000 Defense Authorization Act stipulates restrictions in 12 fields of Sino-US military exchanges. The current trend shows that the restrictions will be stricter.
Second, the US has never given up on selling arms to Taiwan as an important means of pressuring China. On May 24, the US House of Representatives passed an Act that calls for strengthening Taiwan’s military capabilities, and for the first time, includes high-level military exchanges between the US and Taiwan.
Third, the US regards China as a potential adversary, which will certainly prompt the US to strengthen its combat capabilities, including military reconnaissance operations. As China’s military grows, the need for US military reconnaissance will also grow.
China’s Threat to US Military Dominance
The strategic target of the US military has always been to maintain its position as the world’s supreme power to safeguard global security, and to maintain an absolute advantage in technology and strength over other countries. The pace of China’s military modernization, though still far behind the US as a whole, has given the US government and military concern for an impending crisis. It is highly likely that China and the US militaries are privately prepared to deal with the worst possible conflict with each other.
In addition, in recent years, the Chinese military has taken more initiatives in the direction of the Diaoyu Islands, the Taiwan Strait, and the South China Sea, demonstrating its determination and ability to safeguard national interests. The US views China’s actions, in turn, as the use of military means to achieve the goal of changing the security balance in the region, thus challenging the long-standing US security dominance of the Asia-Pacific region. This in turn has steadily deteriorated the basis of mutual trust in Sino-US military relations.
Uncertain Future and Crisis Management
Trust, goodwill, and good faith are the basis of military cooperation, but cooperation is not an end. It is only a way to achieve the common goals of both countries. Based upon the aforementioned differences between the two countries, it is unlikely that their military cooperation will deepen or expand. In the near future, the military-to-military relationship between China and the US will lack the basis for in-depth development, but neither side will likely risk a path toward dangerous conflict. The two sides will continue to maintain existing institutional channels of communication and exchanges, as well as high-level exchanges of visits. There is still a high demand for crisis management and conflict avoidance, with more interactions between both militaries’ warships and airplanes. The more that both sides implement and use existing agreements and pipelines — including the Department of Defense direct telephone line, dialogue mechanism at all levels, confidence-building measures mechanisms — the more crisis management will be effective.