Sunday 17 Jan 2021 | 07:37 | SYDNEY
Sunday 17 Jan 2021 | 07:37 | SYDNEY

US-China military relations still tense


Rory Medcalf


12 July 2011 13:46

Behind the handshakes and formalities, military relations between the US and China remain strained. Of course it's good to see the US-China defence dialogue occurring once more, after Beijing suspend it for most of 2011. But there is little hint of a meeting of minds or worldviews in the visit to China this week by the Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen.

For years, America has used such dialogues to urge China to increase the transparency of its military capabilities and intentions. Now the tables are somewhat turned. General Chen Bingde, PLA Chief of the General Staff, has used his counterpart's visit to chide the US publicly over the size of its military budget, its surveillance operations close to the Chinese coast and its combined exercises in the South China Sea – including with Australia

Some good has come of the visit. The announcement of three new bilateral confidence-building measures (CBMs) is welcome. But two of these — anti-piracy and humanitarian exercises – are what might be termed 'indirect' CBMs. They have essentially no immediate impact on areas of friction and risk in maritime interaction: the tensions in the South and East China seas. The third is thankfully a more direct measure: a one-off dialogue on operational safety. This could have some effect in reducing risks from those incidents at sea associated with China's growing maritime assertiveness.

But, as my co-authors and I argued in a recent major report, much more substantial CBMs will be necessary to minimise the possibilities of major-power conflict at sea in the years ahead. A continuous operational dialogue between US and Chinese forces is one essential and so-far missing ingredient.

There is no sign yet from the Mullen visit that China is prepared to suspend its demand that some kind of overarching political trust — whatever precisely that may mean — should precede such vital, practical steps. I wish it were otherwise, but this week's events would seem to bear out the less-than-optimistic conclusions of Crisis and Confidence.

Photo by Flickr user Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.