An Imperative to Engage

By Captain Dale C. Rielage, U.S. Navy

For two decades, the Chinese government has suspended military engagements as a low-cost means of expressing its displeasure with U.S. security policy in Asia, especially the sales of arms to Taiwan. U.S. policy and defense officials have been long frustrated with this Chinese approach, operating from the assumption that military relations build lines of communication and serve as a mechanism for mutual crisis management that is most valuable when relations are at their worst.

This inconsistency stands in stark contrast to the stability in our economic relationship. Even in periods of crisis, such as the year after the 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo, Chinese exports to the United States have experienced steady growth. 4 Former senior U.S. officials have suggested that the United States simply values the military-to-military relationship more than the Chinese. 5

What Does China Want?

The ascension of Xi Jinping to the post of Chinese Communist Party General Secretary in 2013 introduced a new dynamic to the military-to-military relationship. China now touts its military-engagement program as promoting “a new model of major-country relations” between the United States and China—a key element of current Chinese foreign policy. At his June 2013 summit with President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California, Xi made this idea a centerpiece of the discussions and introduced the phrase in the joint statement issued by the two heads of state. At its most fundamental, the “new model” rejects the idea that an established power and a rising power must inevitably come into conflict. Beyond this basic idea, however, the concept remains vaguely defined. U.S. critics have assessed that the “new model” suggests a deference to China’s self-defined core interests—interests that run counter to those of the United States and traditional alliance relationships.

Chinese officials have extended the “new model” idea to the realm of military diplomacy, calling for “a new type of military relationship” to complement the intentions of senior political leaders. 6 The explicit linkage of military-to-military relations to the health of the overall relationship suggests that China may be finally moving to the view that sound military relations are an essential component of a stable and constructive bilateral relationship. If so, this shift may reflect a growing awareness in the Chinese leadership that international incidents involving military forces can impact the wider bilateral relationship and distract China’s leaders from the domestic and economic issues that are most critical to their nation’s future.

And on the U.S. Side . . .

In past years, rapid swings in the military-to-military relationship have discouraged U.S. officers from clearly defining what we seek to achieve from contacts with the PLAN. Long-term planning efforts were often frustrated by rapid, unpredictable changes in what was both permitted and deemed useful in the shifting political situation.

In the U.S. Navy, as within academia and government, there are divergent opinions about the utility of military-to-military engagement. Some see it as an inherent good. Reflecting traditional American optimism about the attractiveness of our ideas, this view emphasizes the potential of military contacts to shape the long-term perceptions of Chinese military counterparts. Ultimately, advocates of this approach see U.S. engagement as encouraging the Chinese military to develop into a professional, apolitical force. In the best case, the PLAN, defending a China that is integrated into the international system and respectful of international norms and practices, could be a provider of “international public goods” such as maritime security. 7

Conversely, there are those who believe that any contact with the PLAN is at best a waste of time, with little or no chance of significantly mitigating structural conflicts between the United States and China. At worst, these observers see such engagements as a compromise of U.S. principles and a potential exposure of U.S. technology and capabilities to a likely future adversary.

‘The Time is Ripe’

While there are valid concerns in any interaction with the PLAN, the U.S. Navy has a unique imperative to engage with our PLAN counterparts that is grounded in the operational environment. U.S. Navy units are a routine presence in the Western Pacific, operating in areas near the coasts of both China and our Pacific allies. In 2004, then- General Secretary Hu Jintao established “New Historic Missions” for the PLA, reflecting China’s growing international ties and dependences. As the PLAN has moved to support these missions, it has extended its operations into the world’s oceans.

These new PLAN missions and operating areas create an environment where our navies will encounter each other at sea with increasing frequency. With these more routine encounters, there has been a realization—arguably on both sides—that actions at sea may impact the larger relationship. The time is ripe to consider what the U.S. Navy can and cannot potentially achieve by engaging with the PLAN, and to ensure that we are explicit and clear in communicating our expectations.

Building Trust . . . but What Kind?

Many scholars of international relations have identified lack of trust as a key source of friction in the U.S.­-PRC bilateral relationship. 8 Advocates of expanded military-to-military engagement often speak of using these interactions to build trust, while skeptics respond that no military interaction is likely to change Chinese behavior they see as supporting their critical national interests. In a sense, both views are correct. To understand the value and limitations of military-to-military contacts, it is useful to think of two different kinds of trust: political and operational.

Political trust represents a decision that another nation is a useful and suitable partner, whether in a single limited instance or across a range of issues spanning decades. Political trust is fundamentally a decision made by senior levels of the respective governments. While lasting trust is usually built over time, political trust can be created and destroyed quickly.

Alternatively, operational trust is the expectation, usually between militaries, that another service is safe, competent and reliable in conducting operations. This trust is a factor not only in combined operations, but also in operations conducted in proximity to one another. Operational trust must be enabled by senior level decisions but cannot be created by them. Rather, operational trust is built over time through demonstrated competence, predictability, and reliability.

History provides numerous examples of combined military efforts that foundered on a lack of operational trust between forces in political alignment. Conversely, despite being political adversaries, the U.S. and Soviet navies achieved a degree of operational trust that allowed both to work in close proximity during the Cold War with a limited number of incidents. Where political trust is expressed in abstractions, operational trust is often expressed in minute detail and well-worn procedures. Given a station, can you keep it? Will you? Can you put fuel in my helicopter without killing my crew? Will you keep a stand-off from hazardous operations if I signal you? Is your boarding ladder safe for my sailors to climb?

Talking to each other, the U.S. Navy and PLAN often mistake one type of trust for the other. This misunderstanding is aggravated by different cultural assumptions between the two parties. U.S. officers often assume that relationships are built bottom up through lower level engagement. Demonstrated trust in small areas builds trust in larger areas. In contrast, most Chinese explain trust as extending top down, based on the direction of seniors responsible for the relationship. This mindset makes it particularly unlikely that low-level interactions with Chinese counterparts will shape senior-level policy behavior.

Where these two categories matter for both navies is that each places a premium on a different type of engagement. Simply, political trust is created by structures beyond the naval leadership in both nations. At best, high-end, headline-worthy exercises can signal the existence of political trust, but these show-piece exercises cannot create it. No naval exercise, however complex, open and transparent, will change Chinese maritime claims that cover much of the South China Sea or address Chinese objections to U.S. military operations in its exclusive economic zone. The tool is not fit to the task.

Acting on this conclusion runs counter to the bureaucratic impulses that create pressure for increasing the depth and complexity of events between the navies. These pressures are most apparent on the Chinese side, where the visual of a visit or exercise is often seen as the most important product from the event. The United States, however, is not exempt from this pressure. Bureaucracies thrive on “first-evers” and “concrete deliverables” that validate their efforts. For example, visits by senior navy leaders on each side are often “graded” by outside observers based on the places and platforms that the seniors visit. These critiques ignore the truth that the most intriguing venue has little impact on the relationship if the surrounding discussion is an exchange of boilerplate talking points. In recent engagements, U.S. Navy leaders have de-emphasized places and platforms and worked to focus discussions on operational-level issues rather than policy-level concerns. 9

These senior discussions, if well handled, can shape the environment for operating forces to take the critical next steps. The adoption of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea by the Western Pacific Naval Symposium, for example, provides an agreed basis for communications between units. 10 This multi-national protocol accepted by both navies does not built trust in itself but offers a foundation for the basic interactions that can build operational trust.

Success is Keeping it Simple

Trust between operational forces is not built by any single event. Rather, operational trust is built by multiple interactions that are marked by consistency rather than complexity. Most U.S. Navy officers have a definite opinion as to the skill and competence of our close allies and partners. Our operational trust in Japanese, NATO, and Commonwealth naval colleagues is high because most U.S. officers have extensive personal experience working with them. While some of that interaction occurs during high-end warfighting exercises, the fundamentals are built during division tactics, publications exercises, and basic interactions at the watchstander level. It is also built by clear, professional communications during routine interactions at sea.

With this in mind, the emerging U.S. Navy approach to working with the PLAN focuses on consistency rather than headlines. A larger number of regular, relatively simple interactions could broaden each navy’s familiarity with the other as an operational force. It would ensure hundreds of watchstanders, rather than a hand-vetted cadre, have overcome the challenges of using common signals to a common purpose.

Fully enabling increased interaction would require a sea change in the way events are planned between the two navies. Generally, military-to-military events with China are planned as part of an annual schedule negotiated between ministry-level officials. Each interaction is approached as a stand-alone occurrence that must be negotiated in detail. Even a relatively simple event at sea typically requires multiple planning conferences at the fleet level and above. The effort required ensures that interactions are carefully scripted efforts—and relatively rare.

RIMPAC offers an example of the potential benefits and limitations of the current approach. Layered in the context of a 22-nation event, incorporating the PLAN took extensive dialogue extending more than year. In execution, both the U.S. Navy and PLAN learned a great deal about how the other conducts routine operations. Thus, CNO Admiral Greenert’s assessment of PLAN performance during RIMPAC as “average” was grounded in extended U.S. Navy interactions with PLAN exercise participants. 11 Meeting the international average represents a significant professional accomplishment for a navy so new to the international arena. These mutual experiences, however, were restricted to a small cadre of units on each side.

To extend this experience more broadly, the CNO has proposed a “plan once, execute many” approach that standardizes a menu of potential at-sea interactions. These modules would not break new ground in the complexity or content of our interactions, but rather provide the basis for broad familiarization of with each others’ procedures for operations of common concern—search and rescue, humanitarian assistance, and disaster relief. The content of these modules would be agreed to in advance by the respective sides at the political level, planned and standardized between the navies as a common, off-the-shelf exercise serial. Execution would then be arranged at the fleet level, as forces operating in common ocean areas present the opportunity.

Engagement Requirements

Like every interaction with China, the way ahead for such a proposal is complicated and lined with caveats. For the United States, the National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 constrains the scope of military-to-military contacts by the services. U.S. leaders have characterized these restrictions as a common-sense standard that would apply regardless of the legal requirement, and the potential menu of interactions could be constructed to steer well away from any of the prohibited areas. More significant is the associated requirement for the Department of Defense to certify to Congress each year that all interactions with the Chinese military have complied with the law. This process causes the Office of the Secretary of Defense (OSD) staff to act as a central approving authority for individual interactions between the two militaries. While an administrative burden, this construct has served to impose a level of consistency on the U.S. side of the relationship and ensured no U.S. command concedes long-term interests for possible short-term gain. However, increasing the level of operational interaction will require flexibility and trust from both nations’ bureaucracies that the navies will remain within their respective political guidance.

Beyond the administrative requirement, the successful implementation of wider engagement requires that the U.S. Navy shift away from viewing the PLAN solely as a Pacific issue. The PLAN has been a constant presence in the Mideast since 2009. In the last year, PLAN surface forces have crossed into European, African, Southern and Northern Command areas of responsibility. Outside the Pacific, common interests are strongest and competing maritime claims are less of an immediate issue. In the words of one scholar, “outside of the Asia-Pacific region China and the United States are more likely to cooperate than to fight each other.”12 Ensuring that our global naval interactions support the same goals and observe the same limitations requires that they be managed and coordinated with a global view. Unconstrained by geography, the military services have a unique role working with the Joint Staff to develop this cross-regional approach to interacting with the PLAN across the globe.

Further, the U.S. Navy should synchronize increased interactions with the PLAN with ongoing efforts to reassure our allies and partners. A number of our allies harbor deep insecurities that America’s economic interests will ultimately drive a strategic accommodation with Beijing. Respect for each others’ core interests—a key element of Beijing’s understanding of the “New Model of Great Power Relations”—can sound much like allowing China a free hand in the Western Pacific, likely to the detriment of our allies. Operational interaction must not be mistaken for a sign that the United States is trending toward this kind of bargain. However, we should also recognize that many partners in Asia do not want to see a rivalry between China and United States, which would disrupt their development and force them to choose sides in a bilateral contest. For these partners, continued good faith efforts to increase military-to-military interactions between the United States and China are a welcome stabilizing factor.

Finally, the U.S. Navy needs to be clear in its public discussion how it views both the value and the limitations of operational interactions. We should be confident in asserting the value of understanding a growing navy that we will encounter at sea, while avoiding the temptation to over-state the potential impact of military-to-military ties.

Even with these challenges, engaging the PLAN is a worthy effort that we as naval professionals should support as part of a larger U.S. strategy for the Asia-Pacific. The reality is that we will encounter the PLAN across the globe. Clear discussion as to what is and is not achievable in our interactions is essential to ensure our planning and the advice we provide political leadership is realistic.

The extent of political trust at a level beyond the two navies will determine if, when, and where we work together at sea for common purpose. Operational trust—the unique element that navies can develop—will determine how well we can operate in proximity to each other. The U.S. Navy can react to the first and build the second. We should proceed accordingly.

1. “RIMPAC drill not window-dressing for China-US ties,” Xinhua News Agency , 26 June 2014, .

2. “Chinese Spy Ship operating off Isles,” Honolulu Star-Advertiser , 19 July 2014, 1.

3. James Mann, About Face: The History of America’s Curious Relationship with China , (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1999).

4. U.S. Census Bureau, “Trade in Goods with China, ” .

5. Kurt Campbell and Richard Weitz, “The Limits of U.S.-China Military Cooperation: Lessons from 1995–1999,” The Washington Quarterly , vol. 29, no. 1 (Winter 2005–06), 169–86.

6. Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, Director of the PRC Ministry of Defense Foreign Affairs Office, quoted in China Daily , 18 May 2013, .

7. Denny Roy, Return of the Dragon: Rising China and Regional Security , (New York: Columbia University Press, 2013), 73.

8. Michael Swaine, et al., U.S.-China Security Perceptions Survey: Findings and Implications , (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), 2013.

9. “China Pushes Limits to Closer Ties With U.S. Military: Beijing’s Navy Chief Seeks Greater Access to U.S. Aircraft Carriers,” The Wall Street Journal , 21 July 2014, .

10. U.S. Navy Public Affairs, “Navy Leaders Agree to CUES at 14th WPNS,” 23 April 2014, .

11. ADM Jonathan Greenert, USN, remarks to the Aspen Security Forum, 25 July 2014,

12. Roy, 69.

Captain Rielage serves as director for Intelligence and Information Operations for U.S. Pacific Fleet. He has served as 3rd Fleet N2, 7th Fleet deputy N2, senior intelligence officer for China at the Office of Naval Intelligence, and director of the Navy Asia Pacific Advisory Group.


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