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Chinese Defense Minister’s Visit Boosts Bilateral Military Ties

Richard Weitz

Most importantly, Chang’s visit sustained the upward momentum in the China-US defense relationship that has been evident since Xi Jinping visited the United States in February 2012, when he was preparing to become China’s new president. When they later met at their informal summit in Sunnyland California this June, Xi told President Barack Obama that he sought “a new pattern of military relations” compatible with the new type of overall great power relations he wanted to see between China and the United States.

In addition to stops at the Pentagon and US Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Chang became the first PRC Defense Minister to visit the headquarters of Northern Command, which has major responsibilities for organizing the US military response to major natural disasters and other domestic emergencies. The PLA has often played that role in China.

Chang’s meeting with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel seems to have gone particularly well. Their private session and subsequent public press conference lasted much longer than scheduled. Their joint media appearance was marked by a comprehensive and thoughtful dialogue about the evolving nature of the China-US military relationship. Both men agreed that China and the United States would likely have the most decisive influence on whether East Asia would continue to enjoy relative peace and prosperity. They also affirmed that defense ties constituted an important component of their overall relationship—recognition that security issues cannot be easily compartmentalized apart from overall China-US ties.

Chang and Hagel confirmed plans to expand China-US military exercises, exchanges, and other activities. Shortly after Chang’s visit, the PLA Navy (PLAN) joined the US and other fleets in another anti-piracy exercise. Next year, the PLAN will for the first time become a full participant in the US-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest multinational naval drill.

These exercises should help the Chinese and US militaries understand one another’s tactics, techniques, and procedures better. The resulting insights could help prevent miscalculations, miscommunications, and other problems that could lead to unsought military confrontations—something Hagel warned about in his June 1 speech in Singapore on Asian security.

Several other senior PLA officers accompanied Chang on his US tour. These high-level defense exchanges will continue in coming months to include trips to China by US Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno and US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh, as well as a trip to the United States by the PLAN Commander, Admiral Wu Shengli. Hagel confirmed his intent to visit China sometime next year.

The decision to establish regular contacts between the planning staffs of the PLA and the US Joint Chiefs of Staff could promote the kind of dialogue between Chinese and US defense strategists valuable for anticipating and managing future military contingencies.

The participants should discuss what threats most worry them and how these challenges might be averted or addressed through joint action. The strategists should also think about how the China-US military relationship should evolve in coming years and how best to get there.

The one discordant note in the Chang-Hagel press conference occurred when they were asked about the US Asia Pivot—the rebalancing of US attention and other assets from other world regions to East Asia. Chang restated earlier Chinese reservations about how the Pivot might be applied to try to contain China militarily or to encourage other Asian countries to pursue their contested claims with Beijing more vigorously. The General also repeated what Xi told Obama at their Sunnyland summit—that China would insist on safeguarding its national sovereignty and maritime rights even while seeking to promote peace and mutual security in Asia.

Hagel emphasized that the United States would accept whatever outcome to these disputes the local parties agreed to, and only sought to prevent the use of coercive measures in the process. Hagel’s stance reflects the broader Obama administration position that the United States welcomed China’s rising influence and power as long as it constructively contributed to solving global challenges and was exercised in accordance with widely shared norms such as the non-use of military force to resolve territorial disputes.

Although these statements clashed with the visit’s overall positive tone, it is mutually beneficial for Chinese and Americans to understand one another’s security priorities and concerns. The Chinese military’s growing overseas presence and China’s expanding security ties throughout the globe are increasing the occasions when the two militaries are operating in each other’s vicinity. The risk remains from the escalation of a local conflict in which Beijing and Washington happen to back opposing parties.

Chang’s visit reflected and reinforced the continuing improvement in China-US defense ties, which historically have been a lagging element in the bilateral relationship. Yet, the favorable changes seen in the China-US military relationship in the last few years, like the improvements in the overall relationship, have been evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Both defense communities still see the other as a potential military adversary. The relationship also remains vulnerable to the same kinds of issues that have repeatedly upended China-US defense ties in the past—an unexpected accidental confrontation, Beijing’s anger at US military activities near China, and especially US arms sales to Taiwan.

No matter how comprehensive their exchanges or dialogue, the PLA and the Pentagon cannot overcome these deeply rooted problems by themselves. The underlying factors that sustain China-US strategic competition—their regional rivalries, military buildups, different geopolitical environments, and contrasting political systems—will persist for years if not decades. But we should welcome that their senior officers will better understand one another’s actions when the next acute China-US security crisis arises.

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