The “New Normal” in China-US Military Relations

by Yao Yunzhu / September 12, 2016/ ChinaUS Focus

Of all relationships between China and the United States, the military one had been the most difficult. For more than two decades, while relations between the two great powers in other fields had gone through ups and downs, defense relations have been trapped in an on-and-off pattern. Lack of understanding and deep-rooted suspicion had kept military ties at a low level and rendered them highly vulnerable. However, recent years have witnessed more positive developments, and some observers have even cheered the military relation as a highlight in a generally downhill bilateral relationship. It seems that the China-US military relationship has entered a state of “new normal”, in which progress is encouraging, though challenges are daunting.

One positive development in this “new normal” pattern is the newly found resilience in the mil-mil relation. The mutual understanding is that military ties are so important that they have to be maintained even in difficult times. The Chinese PLA and the US military are now interacting with each other with more frequency and greater density. The Chinese navy’s participation in the RIMPAC 2016 Exercise hosted by US Pacific Fleet, and the consecutive visits to China by Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Scott Swift, Pacific Fleet Commander, and Gen. Mark A. Milley, Chief of the Army Staff, are examples of unimpeded communication and exchanges at times when the two countries are pointing fingers at each other in the South China Sea and on the THAAD deployment decision. High-level visits have not only been frequent in number but also candid and communicative in style.

The “New Normal” also features the extension and deepening of institutionalized exchanges and dialogues. Annual Defense Consultative Talks (DCT) and Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) between the two military establishments have been carried on in a more interactive and constructive way. The mechanism of the Maritime Management Consultation Agreement (MMCA), in which both sides have tried to work out ways to avoid accidents at sea and in the air, has yielded concrete results. At the national level, defense officials on both sides have participated in the Strategic and Security Dialogue. And the two militaries have worked to set up new dialogue platforms between defense counterparts, such as between the strategic planning organizations and the services.

Functional exchanges make up the substance of the military relations, including reciprocal visits by military academies and schools, academic exchanges such as a seminar on international issues jointly sponsored by the Chinese Academy of Military Science and the US Army War College, the exchange between military medical units, counter-terrorism units, cooperation of archivists to locate the remains of US MIAs during the Second World War, and port calls. Recent years have seen more joint exercises than ever before, such as a counter-piracy joint exercise in the Gulf of Aden, HADR (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief) exercises in both China and the US, and SAR (search and rescue) exercises in conjunction with port visits. Functional exchanges are the essential way to build trust and develop the habit of cooperation. The two militaries carry out more than 50 exchange programs every year.

Another new development worth noting in this “New Normal” are the measures and mechanisms to prevent and manage crisis between the two militaries. At the end of 2014, the US Department of Defense and Chinese Ministry of National Defense agreed upon two MOUs (Memorandum of Understanding), one on notification of major military activities, another on rules of behavior for safety in air and maritime encounters. Later last year, an annex of “military crisis notification mechanism for use of the defense telephone link” and an air-to-air part of the rules of encounters have been added to the two MOUs. Crisis-prevention management and confidence building measures are important new elements in the relation now that both militaries find themselves come across each other frequently. They are crucial stabilizers even in the worst circumstances. Read more…

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