The Future of China-U.S. Military Relations

A ChinaFile Conversation

The U.S.-China military relationship has been relatively stable over the past few years. Both sides’ leaders recognize that effective relations between the two militaries help prevent crises and stabilize the broader bilateral relationship.

Events in late 2018, however, demonstrated how easily the military relationship could get off track. On September 20, the U.S. State Department sanctioned the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.) Equipment Development Department and its director for purchasing advanced arms from Russia for a sanctions violation. Beijing responded by postponing a military dialogue, curtailing a visit to the United States by the P.L.A. Navy commander, effectively cancelling a visit to China by Secretary of Defense James Mattis and denying a U.S. Navy port call in Hong Kong. Also in late September, a Chinese destroyer came within 45 yards of the USS Decatur in the South China Sea in what the U.S. Pacific Fleet called a series of “increasingly aggressive maneuvers.” While there have been a number of close incidents involving U.S. and Chinese aircraft and ships in recent years, the near-collision occurring alongside a precipitous decline in high-level U.S.-China military talks raised serious questions about the potential for a clash to escalate out of control.

How much cooperation can be expected throughout 2019? What should the agenda be for U.S.-China military relations, and what obstacles will need to be overcome? —Joel Wuthnow


At the last U.S.-China defense ministerial, in November 2018, then Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe pledged to pursue a “constructive and results-oriented” military relationship. From a U.S. perspective, the most important “results” that the relationship can produce are ensuring the safety of U.S. military personnel during unplanned encounters with Chinese forces within and beyond the Indo-Pacific. This is critical both to protect U.S. lives and to reduce the chances of an avoidable escalation of tensions that could imperil regional stability.

There has been some progress. In 2014, the two countries agreed on “rules of behavior” for naval forces, which follow and reinforce international standards; an annex covering air-to-air encounters was completed the following year. In August 2017, the two sides initiated a Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism intended to develop a framework for crisis communications that would “reduce the risk of miscalculation.” Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan can build on those achievements in 2019.

One way would be to broaden the rules of behavior to cover the U.S. and Chinese coast guards. This should be on the agenda for three reasons. First, China Coast Guard ships have been involved in unsafe encounters with U.S. Navy ships, including the 2009 Impeccable incident, and future incidents are possible, and perhaps even likely. Second, in 2018 the China Coast Guard was formally placed under China’s Central Military Commission, and thus should now be considered a “military” force held to the same professional standards as the Navy. Third, the U.S. Coast Guard is now deploying ships to the Western Pacific, and may face future incidents. One option would simply be to clarify that the 2014 rules of behavior agreement covers Coast Guard ships when they are operating under military authority.

Another priority should be resuming the Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism, which China suspended in late 2018 following the U.S. CAATSA sanctions. The aim of both sides should be to develop concrete methods for de-conflicting U.S. and Chinese forces during a crisis, like if North Korea collapses. Beijing has been hesitant to discuss North Korean contingencies, concerned this would alienate its erstwhile ally and inflame tensions. Ways around this could include developing a more general protocol for quickly sharing information between operational commanders and conducting crisis simulations, neither of which would have to explicitly reference North Korea but which could have value in a crisis on the peninsula or elsewhere.

Both sides should also understand the limitations to enhancing risk reduction. A sizable trust deficit between the two militaries could hobble agreements and lead to accusations that neither side is enforcing them in good faith. The non-binding nature of the agreements could also dilute their usefulness, especially if Beijing decides to intentionally escalate military tensions in areas like the South China Sea. Yet both capitals will likely want to defuse tensions quickly—such as when a Chinese ship captain or airman operates “out of bounds”—and having clear guidelines already in place will help manage those incidents.

What should the agenda be for U.S.-China military relations, and what obstacles need to be overcome?

While the U.S. national security strategy has asserted for the first time that we are in a great power competition with China, our approach to military-to-military relations has seemingly not changed. On January 28, Admiral John M. Richardson commented positively about his recent visit to China, stating that he has “a good working relationship with [his] counterpart” and that he “had a very rich visit.” Our talking points remain the same: encouraging China to embrace professionalism in its military activities and to abide by international law. More specifically, the U.S. goal is to establish personal relationships to facilitate risk reduction.

But China has become more aggressive under Xi Jinping and is relying more and more on military tools to, for example, push its agenda in the South China Sea. The Chinese military’s number one objective is to “prepare for military struggle,” with its mostly likely opponent being the United States. This means we have to shift the focus of the military relationship accordingly.

Specifically, the goal of these exchanges should be to learn more about the operational capabilities and procedures of the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.). Even with all of the Pentagon’s resources, there are still things the U.S. does not know or understand about China’s military. This should be the focus of our military-to-military relationship. Not on establishing personal ties, which are short-lived and probably not as strong as we think they are, nor about risk management—China engages in risky behavior intentionally to signal its resolve on maritime disputes. Instead, we should be asking to see how their personnel is trained, how their command and control system functions in crises and wartime, and what impact the anti-corruption campaign has had on the P.L.A., by meeting with people from China’s Inspection and Discipline Committees.

The bottom line is: both the U.S. and Chinese militaries are tools of power that their national leaderships will wield as they see fit. Our exchanges are unlikely to impact broader U.S.-China relations. Thus, we need to move away from the symbolic and towards devising agendas that help the U.S. better prepare for contingencies in East Asia.

The National Security Strategy describes a return of great power rivalry, with China as the leading challenger. Whether dealing with China’s ethnic cleansing in Xinjiang, military build-up and threat to Taiwan, violation of its WTO commitments, or “unlawful” taking of Canadian hostages, the U.S. has made clear it “will not back down” in the face of outrageous Chinese behavior. Instead, the U.S. is pushing back against what U.S. officials have called Beijing’s “malign influence.” The National Defense Strategy prioritizes strategic competition too, with Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan noting that his top three priorities are “China, China, China.” What are the implications for U.S.-China military-to-military contacts of these developments?

The Annual Report to Congress on Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China notes that military-to-military relations are intended to “manage and reduce risk” and “clarify and develop areas of cooperation.” With the U.S. less focused on engaging and shaping and more focused on competing with and deterring the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.), it might make sense to retain high-level communications channels, while reducing largely symbolic contacts. Previously, multilateral exercises were seen as a tool to socialize the P.L.A. to the international rules of the road. Unfortunately, China collected the prestige of being invited to such events while continuing to act belligerently towards its neighbors, building artificial islands in the South China Sea in violation of the 2012 Declaration on the Conduct of the Parties and militarizing these islands despite Xi Jinping’s 2015 promise to President Obama not to do so. This made the cancellation of the P.L.A.’s invite to the 2018 RIMPAC exercise appropriate. China’s continued harassment of U.S. air and maritime platforms operating in international airspace and waters means invitations to the P.L.A. to join multilateral exercises will likely remain off the table.

The U.S. side could benefit from continuing high-level dialogues, in order to reinforce the P.L.A.’s need to abide by the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and to press China to extend such an arrangement to the air domain as well. The U.S. could also dialogue with China on the rules of the road for cyberspace, including non-targeting of critical infrastructure and how to do agreed-upon attribution so that third parties can’t spark a digital conflict between the two sides. Discussions on limiting strategically destabilizing systems such as counter-space assets and hypersonic glide vehicles could reduce the prospect of a costly arms race while preventing proliferation to third countries. Recently, the P.L.A. has repeatedly directed lasers against U.S. airframes—this is another topic to address. Finally, the two sides could pursue something positive, such as discussing how to mount an operation to deal with an Ebola outbreak in Africa or how to coordinate on a joint response to a super-typhoon or tsunami in the Indo-Pacific.

As intensified competition shapes the military-military relationship on strategic and operational levels, the United States and China should both consolidate crisis management and think more broadly about managing competition. Crisis management alone is not enough to handle competition. If the two sides can’t keep competition under control, crisis management will either fail or be marginalized as the overall bilateral relations deteriorate rapidly.

Previously, military and security crisis-management benefited from both a strategic consensus and the primacy of the economic agenda in bilateral relations. But we are now in an era of a weakened strategic consensus and a downplayed economic agenda. Both sides must exert self-control in military competition. In the western Pacific, without effective mutual understanding and management those obsessed with maritime gray zone competition run the risk of transforming gray zones into red.

Regional developments in the last five years show that overreliance on military elements rarely achieves policy objectives. For example, in the last two years, non-military elements of Chinese strategy contributed substantially to the improvement of China’s position in the East and South China Seas, while the Trump administration’s overemphasis on military options has reduced the effectiveness and credibility of U.S. military posture.

A balance between pressure and reassurance is critical to managing competition. Both countries possess a wide range of capabilities to exert pressure and offer reassurance. Pressure includes deployment of advanced assets and military operations around security hotspots. Reassurance includes military exchanges and communications, joint exercises, and cooperation on non-confrontational issues. While pressures demonstrate the determination to safeguard national interests and prepare for worst-case scenarios, reassurances indicate a commitment to stability, highlight non-hostile elements of the relationship, and show willingness for further improvement. In the past two years, the rhetoric of competition has increased security frictions in many regions and over many issues, thus greatly reducing the scope of military exchange and cooperation. U.S. policymakers still value cooperation with China on the Korean Peninsula, but the current diplomacy-centered strategy might not generate adequate military cooperation. Another option to enhance cooperation is to highlight other shared security interests, such as anti-piracy operations, stability in Afghanistan, counter-terrorism, noncombatant-evacuation, and disaster relief, and to reinforce military cooperation around these interests.