Positive Scenario II

Randall Schriver’s essay “US-China Military-to-Military Relations in 2015: The Negative Indicators” sets a high bar for assessing the question of US-China mil-mil relations in 2015. He correctly notes that, one year into a reinvigorated US-China military-to-military relationship, that relationship has not translated into substantial positive changes in Chinese foreign and security policy practice, and, in fact, China has been more, not less, assertive in recent months. Indeed, China’s actions have been so provocative that they are fueling calls in the United States to push back against what many observers perceive as a Chinese threat to international peace and stability as well as US interests in Asia. For example, the Department of Defense has declined to send a US aircraft carrier to visit China this year despite an invitation from PLA Navy Commander Admiral Wu Shengli.1 Similarly, the US Navy has signaled its intent to continue treating the South China Sea as an international body of water where military operations are permitted (even in Exclusive Economic Zones) by flying and sailing through spaces proximate to the artificial islands China is building in the Spratly Islands. Additionally, the US military has organized a number of multilateral maritime exercises in and around these waters so as to demonstrate constant presence and establish the rights of all states to freedom of navigation through the South China Sea. Vice Admiral Robert Thomas, the commander of the US Seventh Fleet, has publicly suggested that Japan consider flying maritime aircraft on routine patrols through the South China Sea2 and has offered US Navy support to efforts by ASEAN navies to carry out combined maritime patrols in these waters as well.3 Finally, a number of observers, including some prominent US political leaders, have called for disinviting the PLA from the biannual Rim of the Pacific exercises in 2016.4

Despite all of these omens of a more contentious mil-mil relationship in 2015, two questions are worth thinking over when assessing where the remainder of the year is headed. First, the aim of this exchange of views on Alternative Scenarios is not necessarily to assess whether or not the United States and China should be engaging in mil-mil ties (which is what some might interpret Schriver’s article as an argument about, and which is an important but distinct topic), but rather what the quality of those ties likely will look like in 2015. If the focus is on this latter question, what are the prospects for the remainder of 2015? Second, if we take up the question Schriver poses (whether or not to continue with mil-mil engagement), it is important to assess the appropriate metrics for judging success or failure. Here Schriver helpfully lays out a set of metrics that come from the original language reestablishing military ties in 1994. Yet, left unresolved are the questions of how quickly should we expect these standards to produce results, and of what magnitude should the results be to qualify as successful? This response takes those two questions up in turn.

First, in assessing the likely overall trajectory of mil-mil ties over the remainder of 2015, a mix of positive and negative factors are clearly at play. Schriver has helpfully laid out a number of relevant negative factors that have been affecting the overall relationship this year, and he is undeniably correct in noting these as important issues for bilateral ties. Indeed, Chinese analysts themselves also regularly point out that the mil-mil relationship is a function of the broader bilateral political relationship, so as those ties undergo increased strain it would not be surprising to see such tensions show up in the military-to-military domain as well. Yet, to date, US-China mil-mil ties have not been severed despite the strains posed by China’s massive and continuing trade surplus with the United States; its economically-motivated cyber espionage directed against US firms; its increased repression against civil society actors; its tighter military collaboration with a revanchist Russia that is threatening political stability and territorial integrity across a broad swathe of Eastern Europe; and its unceasing investment in military capabilities oriented towards power projection designed to hold US forces and allies at risk. Nor have US efforts to push back against Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea through presence and exercises; to expand and deepen defense cooperation with allies and partners such as Japan, Australia, the Philippines, and Vietnam; or to indict PLA officers for hacking resulted in the Chinese side severing mil-mil ties. There are at least two important reasons for the two sides’ decision to continue their relationship in this space, and these motivations are likely to continue throughout 2015.

One reason ties have been maintained is that the mil-mil relationship has been described by American military leaders as having produced real operational value for the US armed forces. For example, as China’s island-building efforts became more widely known, US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jonathan Greenert was able to reach out directly to PLA Navy Admiral Wu Shengli by video teleconference to communicate US concerns.5 Separately, the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) agreement that was inked in late 2014 was recently cited by Admiral Michelle Howard, the Vice Chief of Naval Operations, as having played a critical role in managing an incident when the USS Fort Worth came into unexpected contact with a Type 054A Jiangkai-II class frigate, the 569 Yulin, while patrolling in the South China Sea.6

A second reason ties have persisted is that the two sides see the prospect of additional gains, most notably by negotiating additional agreements to cover unexpected encounters in the air, where the risks and consequence of an unintended collision are even greater than on the sea. Both the United States and China are looking to avoid unintended conflict. Insofar as the two sides can work out rules of the road to govern their military-to-military contact so as to ensure that these do not accidentally generate military conflict they will have an interest in doing so. If the two sides can negotiate an extension of their CUES arrangement to cover airborne encounters, this will reduce the risks of a repeat of the 2001 EP-3 incident or the more recent August 2014 barrel roll incident and would constrain the PLA’s ability to engage in a risk-manipulation strategy designed to push the US Navy further from China’s shores, making it an attractive agreement for which the United States can strive through mil-mil engagement.7

As to the question of whether or not the United States should be engaging with China in the military realm, the goals of US engagement with the PLA should be to communicate US messages directly; to observe and learn more about the PLA from direct observation; to cooperate on areas of mutual interest wherever possible (humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; military medicine; counter-piracy);8 and to minimize accidental conflict; all while avoiding transfer of insights into US practices and capabilities that would improve PLA warfighting or ability to target US forces. Analysts should be realistic about the value of the relationship to both sides; neither side values the mil-mil relationship so highly that it is likely to sacrifice important competing policy goals for it. Analysts and policy-makers should also avoid the mistaken belief that the mil-mil relationship holds much promise for changing the two sides’ broader perspectives on their strategic relationship; it does not. Finally, it would be unrealistic to expect that even an expanded US-China mil-mil relationship will produce big results in a short amount of time.

Still, to date the United States has been able to use enhanced mil-mil contacts to encourage the PLA to be a more constructive participant in regional affairs (though not to change PLA behavior through such encouragement); to gain greater understanding of PLA capabilities through direct observation; to agree on some minimum standards and confidence-building measures (such as the CUES agreement); and to strive towards a greater understanding of mutual intentions. The steps in these areas have been small to date, and may not be much greater in the year ahead even if mil-mil engagement continues. The gulf between the two countries’ strategic interests, ideologies, and ambitions is enormous: without mil-mil ties, China will almost certainly do things that are extremely deleterious to US interests and values; with mil-mil ties, that will probably also be true, but at least there will be opportunities to communicate US views directly to the PLA and to reduce the prospects of unintended conflict.

For these reasons, as US Army of the Pacific Commanding General Vincent Brooks recently reaffirmed, the United States seeks a “robust” mil-mil relationship characterized by exercises and exchanges so as to “weather the difficult challenges that are still unaddressed.” Deepening such contacts was one of the reasons the United States played host to Central Military Commission Vice-Chairman General Fan Changlong on June 8-12; during his visit, Fan expressed China’s intention to continue pressing ahead with the stable development of the military-to-military relationship. Given that the two sides share the goal of a stable mil-mil relationship, it is highly likely that, absent a repeat of a shocking event such as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 or the 2001 EP-3 incident, the remainder of 2015 will see continued mil-mil exchanges and may even see ties broaden through an agreement on conduct during unexpected aerial encounters.


1. Sam LaGrone, “Pentagon: US Won’t Send Carrier to Mainland China This Year,” USNI News, February 6, 2015.

2. Sam LaGrone, “US 7th Fleet CO: Japanese Patrols of South China Sea ‘Makes Sense,’” USNI News, January 29, 2015.

2. Sam LaGrone, “US 7th Fleet CO: Japanese Patrols of South China Sea ‘Makes Sense,’” USNI News, January 29, 2015.

3. Sam LaGrone, “US 7th Fleet Would Support ASEAN South China Sea Patrols,” USNI News, March 20, 2015.

4. Bryant Jordan, “McCain: Disinvite China from Next Year’s RIMPAC Exercise,” Military.com, May 6, 2015.

5. “China, US Navy Chiefs Hold Video Conversation,” China Military Online, May 2, 2015.

6. Wendell Minnick, “IMDEX: US Vice CNO Urges CUES Use,” Defense News, May 19, 2015.

7. Anthony Capaccio and Angela Greiling Keane, “Chinese Jet Barrel-Rolls over US Plane Bringing Protest,” Bloomberg, August 22, 2014.

8. Scott W. Harold, “Expanding Contacts to Enhance Durability: A Strategy for Improving US-China Military-to-Military Relations,” Asia Policy, No. 16 (2013), 103–137.

9. Wyatt Olson, “Army Pacific Chief says Exercises, Exchanges Key to Better Ties with China,” Stars and Stripes, May 20, 2015.

10. “China’s Top Brass Visits Pentagon,” PLA Daily, June 12, 2015.