Negative Scenario I

Many analysts are quick to say that 2014 was a positive year for the US-China military-to-military (mil-mil) relationship. Those same analysts likely see positive trends continuing this year. But what are these analysts measuring? By what criteria are they basing such assessments? I would submit that many China watchers are looking at the wrong things. Rather than measure the quality of the mil-mil relationship based on volume of activity, the frequency of high-level meetings, and the number of “break though” events in a given year, we should really judge the relationship on whether or not we are meeting our stated objectives. When we do so, it looks like 2015 is shaping up to be a difficult year in US-China mil-mil relations, and 2014 falls short too.

When these mil-mil relations were re-established in 1994 after having been suspended due to the Tiananmen Square massacre, US officials were careful to spell out specific objectives for mil-mil contacts. These have more or less been consistent for the past two decades. The most important objectives include: encouraging China to be a constructive participant in regional affairs; bolstering US deterrence through a display of capabilities; increasing our understanding of the PLA through greater transparency; improving the safety of the operating environment through the establishment of confidence building measures (CBMs); and enhancing mutual trust and promoting a greater understanding of respective intentions through high level dialogue. Our metrics for assessing mil-mil relations should remain grounded in these objectives. If not, then we are guilty of engagement for engagement’s sake alone.

So how are we doing, and what might we expect for 2015? One would certainly be hard pressed to say our mil-mil engagement has encouraged China and the PLA to be constructive participants in regional affairs. To the contrary, the PLA has behaved more aggressively and provocatively in the East China Sea and the South China Sea than in years past. And with major land reclamation projects underway in the disputed territories of the Spratly Islands, there appears to be no end in sight to these provocations. It would thus seem that our engagement with the PLA is not inducing a more responsible posture—it may in fact be enabling such activity by providing the cover of a “new type of military-to-military relationship.”

The PLA behavior described above also belies the notion that we are enhancing our deterrence. From what, one could reasonably ask, has China been deterred? In fact, it seems quite comfortable pushing the envelope with provocations directed at our allies with whom we share defense obligations. If our deterrent effect were getting stronger, would we not expect China to have some reluctance in using military coercion against a treaty ally such as the Philippines? Even more to the point, would China not treat US forces with a little more respect? Just recently, several media outlets reported that a PLA Navy Type 054A guided-missile frigate, closely tracked the USS Fort Worth, a US Navy Freedom-class littoral combat ship, as the latter patrolled the South China Sea near the disputed Spratly Islands on May 11. Furthermore, increased mil-mil exchanges have not prevented the United States from dispatching a reconnaissance drone and Seahawk helicopter to patrol the airspace above the South China Sea. Recent reports on the Pentagon’s decision to challenge Chinese territorial claims more directly show that even top military leaders believe that the PLA is not backing down and will only grow more emboldened in the year ahead.

Where are we on transparency and a better understanding of PLA capabilities? Many observers tout a positive trend in the access our visiting military officers are granted to Chinese facilities and platforms as a sign of greater transparency. Maybe. But transparency is not really about access—it is about a willingness to reveal aspects of China’s ongoing military modernization efforts from which we could glean actual insight into China’s capabilities and intentions. Once again, we are falling well short. And worse still, we may be guilty of rewarding China for more openness when in actuality we are being diverted from the capabilities that are consequential. In 2014, when the Department of Justice indicted five PLA officers for cybercrimes, the Chinese responded by calling the charges “purely fictitious, extremely absurd” and canceled our bilateral dialogue on cyber issues. Baghdad Bob could not have delivered the points any better. And we still know little about Chinese nuclear forces. In the public domain, the credible estimates on Chinese nuclear warhead numbers range from as few as 150 to as many as 3,000. The lack of progress in Chinese transparency on their capabilities plagues the credibility of mil-mil relations and exacerbates uncertainties related to Chinese military intentions, as addressed later.

Many analysts will trumpet recent agreements on new CBMs that carry the potential to enhance safety in the areas where our forces operate. In particular, President Obama and General Secretary Xi used a summit meeting in 2014 to announce efforts toward an agreement on “unanticipated contacts in the air.” Genuine work in this area would be quite valuable. Yet, our history on bilateral CBMs is a checkered one. More often than not, CBMs have provided a false sense of security, only to fail spectacularly when faced with an actual crisis. Think of the presidential hotline that went unanswered after the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. Think of the Chinese refusing to implement the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in the aftermath of the EP-3 incident in 2001 (they subsequently canceled MMCA talks for a period of time after the incident). While we hope to avoid accidents and unintended contact with Chinese forces in 2015, our past suggests that the success associated with the 2014 agreements will only heighten the disappointment when they inevitably fail in practice.

Have we increased mutual trust and do we have a better understanding of intentions? Arguably, closer proximity and dialogue have bred more distrust. The chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) in China has conveyed a vision for “Asia for the Asians,” and many senior party, government, and military officials have criticized US alliances and forward deployed posture. China established an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea in late 2013 without prior consultation, and then Chinese authorities could barely muster an explanation for it beyond, “It is our right to establish an ADIZ.” When it was recently reported that the US Department of Defense is considering “freedom of navigation” exercises in the South China Sea, the Chinese Foreign Ministry blasted these reports. A spokeswoman stated, “We always uphold the freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. But the freedom of navigation definitely does not mean the military vessel or aircraft of a foreign country can willfully enter the territorial waters or airspace of another country.” These comments indicate that China will continue to pursue its national and security interests at the expense of building mutual trust and understanding with the United States.

If the pace of our military engagement with China picks-up, if we meet with Chinese counterparts at the highest levels with greater frequency, and if we achieve “new” types of engagement such as the Chinese participation in RIMPAC in 2014, it is tempting to describe the mil-mil relationship as being on the upswing. But can we credibly say so if our own stated objectives for the relationship remains unmet? In 2015, we can expect more PLA assertiveness and provocations, more diversionary tactics regarding capabilities and intentions, and a less safe operating environment in areas for US and Chinese forces in the Pacific. For these reasons, I believe 2015 will be a negative year for the US-China mil-mil relationship.