Positive Scenario I

After a 2014 filled with both symbolically and practically important developments in US-China military-to-military relations, what does 2015 hold for ties between the two countries’ armed forces? Is the mil-mil relationship, historically one of the weakest, least institutionalized, and most destabilizing aspects of the two countries’ bilateral relationship, likely to continue to improve in 2015? Gauging the probable future trajectory of the relationship is a challenge for any analyst given the multiple factors at play in shaping mil-mil ties. Assessing the forces that favor a positive trend in the mil-mil relationship between the armed forces of the United States and the PLA is not the same as saying the relationship will develop on a positive track; at best, it is one-half of the overall analysis, with negative indicators remaining to be evaluated as well. This essay will explore those indicators suggesting that 2015 will be characterized primarily by positive developments; a companion essay by Randall Schriver examines the negative signposts and reasons for pessimism. After both initial arguments have been aired, the authors will react to each other’s essays and strive to come to an overall assessment in the next round of postings.

Several factors suggest a continuation of the positive trends seen in the relationship over the past year is likely in 2015. These can be broken down into three categories: the relationship of military-to-military ties to the two countries’ overall national strategies; carry-over momentum from gains in the relationship made in 2014; and already-completed early 2015 engagements plus statements and planned and potential visits by defense policy leaders, service chiefs, and unified combatant commanders and relevant component commanders.

The first positive indicator is the relationship of positive military-to-military ties to the two countries’ overall foreign and security policy strategies. On the US side, the Obama administration continues to view China’s rise as a development that presents both challenges and opportunities. Overall China policy is likely to continue the approach of simultaneously hedging and engaging with China, both aspects of which fall under the administration’s “rebalance” or “pivot” to the Asia-Pacific. This will mean trying further to develop relations with allies and security partners in the Asia-Pacific region; to strengthen regional institutions; to increase respect for global norms; and to build up partner capacity, all with an eye towards reinforcing the existing regional order so that it can withstand the stresses and strains that an increasingly powerful China is placing on existing arrangements. At the same time, the US strategy is designed to accommodate China’s rise, provided that it plays by the same set of rules that have benefitted and bound all other regional actors. US-China mil-mil engagements in 2014 reflected this logic, with the United States simultaneously increasing its frequency of high-level contacts (Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jon Greenert met with PLA Navy Admiral Wu Shengli four times last year) and also welcoming the PLA’s participation for the first time in multilateral exercises, including Cobra Gold in Thailand, the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises in Hawaii, and Operation: Kowari in Australia, even as the United States deepened bilateral defense cooperation with allies Japan, South Korea, Australia, and the Philippines.

For its part, China’s strategic objective of maintaining stable relations with the United States so as to continue focusing on economic development and strengthening its comprehensive national power appears to remain a priority, which suggests a continued focus on practical cooperation in mil-mil relations. Indeed, ever since his February 2012 visit to the Pentagon, General-Secretary Xi Jinping has made clear that China intends to deepen its commitment to military-to-military ties with the United States. China’s goal of stabilizing ties between the armed forces of the two sides is reflected in an ambition to supplement its proposed “New-Type of Great Power Relations” with a “New-Type of Mil-Mil Relations.” In 2014, this commitment resulted in visits to China by Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, as well as a visit to the United States by Chief of the General Staff Department of the PLA General Fang Fenghui.

A second positive indicator that military ties may continue warming in 2015 stems from the unfolding of positive initiatives launched in 2014. For example, at their summit in Beijing in November 2014, Obama and Xi agreed on a number of advances in bilateral military confidence-building measures, including a Mutual Notification Mechanism of Major Military Activities and a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). Putting these agreements into practice—and possibly concluding an agreement on unanticipated contacts in the air, where close-calls and even collisions have occurred over the past fifteen years—would appear to be the next steps in the relationship that the two sides are likely to pursue over the coming months. If the Chinese side actively implements the agreements it has signed, and especially if it agrees to expand bilateral cooperation to include unexpected encounters in the air, this would represent a very positive development for bilateral military ties in 2015. Additionally, China’s inaugural participation in the humanitarian aspects of the Cobra Gold exercises in Thailand in 2014 set a precedent that has already been replicated in February 2015, providing evidence of positive multilateral operational-level interaction between the two sides.

A final set of signals indicating an upward trajectory in the mil-mil relationship comes from completed exchanges, statements, and planned visits by US and Chinese national command authorities and defense leaders. First, speaking at the Brookings Institution on February 6, National Security Advisor Susan Rice announced that the United States had invited Xi to visit the United States in 2015, which gives the Chinese side a strong incentive to build on the positive developments in the mil-mil relationship of 2014. Second, US defense officials have already hosted their Chinese counterparts in Washington in early February 2015 for the annual Defense Policy Coordination Talks, and in October, China will host the sixteenth annual Defense Consultative Talks in Beijing, with both sides reportedly looking to build on last year’s breakthroughs in operational-level cooperation and confidence-building.1 Third, at the level of operational implementation and engagement, US Army-Pacific (USARPAC) Commanding General Vincent K. Brooks visited China in January 2015, attending the annual Disaster Management Exercise focused on humanitarian assistance/disaster relief in Hainan province as a guest of Guangzhou Military Region Commanding General Xu Fenlin, contributing to a positive impression of the state of relations between the two sides. Finally, given that personnel turnover has resulted in a new US Secretary of Defense in Ashton Carter and US Pacific Commander in Admiral Harry Harris, it is highly likely that additional contacts will occur as these leaders make their first visits to China, potentially later in 2015 Similarly, since both Chief of the General Staff Department Fang Fenghui (2014) and Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan (2013) have visited in the past eighteen months, and there will undoubtedly be a need to coordinate on defense and military affairs ahead of Xi’s visit later this year, it seems probable that one of the two Central Military Commission vice-chairmen, either General Fan Changlong or General Xu Qiliang, will pay a visit to the United States sometime in the summer or early fall. Moreover, CMC vice-chairmen have tended to visit the United States every three years over the past decade, with Xi Jinping (2012) the most recent, preceded by the now formally arrested General Xu Caihou (2009), and the probably soon-to-be-formally-detained General Guo Boxiong (2006); if this trend holds then one of the two CMC vice-chairmen is likely to visit later this year.

In light of the foregoing considerations—both countries’ strategic goals favoring engagement; the recent conclusion of agreements and launch of initiatives that imply an intention to further enhance cooperation and confidence-building measures; and the early signs from contacts and meetings through the first two plus months of 2015 plus the likelihood of high-level exchanges over the remaining nine plus months of 2015—, there are substantial reasons to think that the two sides will advance bilateral military cooperation further this year. At the same time, it bears noting that substantial obstacles remain to be overcome, most notably differing underlying interests and values as well as a near total absence of strategic trust from both sides, symbolized vividly by the official cyber dialogue, suspended since the May 2014 US Department of Justice indictment of five serving PLA officers for cyber-espionage. It is by no means certain that the positive indicators listed above will ensure a more cooperative future built around engagement. Nonetheless, the positive indicators do suggest that the potential for further improvements in the relationship exists if the two sides can successfully navigate their differences and focus on their common interests.

The views expressed in this piece are his own and do not represent those of The RAND Corporation or any of its sponsors.


1. “US, China Announce Defense Talks,” DoD News, January 29, 2015, http://www.defense.gov/news/newsarticle.aspx?id=128073.