Although it seems cliché to repeat that the relationship between the United States and China will be the most important of the 21st century, the fact remains that the two countries must work together to maintain the relatively stable international order that has promoted peaceful development throughout the world. Although the relationship has reached one of its lower points in recent memory, to support China’s rise as a responsible global stakeholder, the U.S. military can act as a resource for improving diplomacy between the two nations.
Over the past few years, exercises between the U.S. armed forces and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have become commonplace and have taken place in both countries. However, due to China’s actions over the past year, there have been rising calls to halt or severely limit interaction with the PLA—including disinviting them from the 2016 RIMPAC exercises. While this position seems logical, particularly considering that China gains more from the exercises than the United States does, the strategic impact the exercises have on the broader bilateral relationship and regional politics demand a more nuanced analysis.
First, while there are multiple points of contention between Chinese and U.S. policies—including some that are diametrically opposed—China has many of the same goals as the United States. China is a status quo power that has benefited greatly from the policies and institutions of the postwar world, and therefore also values global stability from both a military and economic standpoint. Many of the exercises we have participated in with China have involved anti-piracy and humanitarian missions, and China has more than 3,000 troops deployed in global U.N. peacekeeping operations. These exercises should be continued because they reinforce China’s role as a responsible global stakeholder and are specifically authorized in the National Defense Authorization Act.
Second, with a smaller military and a shrinking fleet, the United States can no longer be everywhere at once. Despite this, naval deployments are increasing and combatant commanders are relying even more on an overburdened fleet. One reason for this trend, particularly in the Pacific, is the intense distrust between nations. Many Asian countries turn to the United States as a balancing tool against a nearby China they view with suspicion. However, because the United States is not interested in containing China, it can use its role as a buffer to build trust between China and its neighbors, thereby reducing their reliance on U.S. forces. This strategy also reduces the risk of a growing arms race in the region, and by building mechanisms for multilateral dialogue, it becomes easier to ease tensions during crises.
By continuing to host and participate in bilateral exercises, we diminish the credibility of extremist views within China that the United States is obstinate, unwilling to cooperate, and trying to contain China.The increased exposure of our officers and sailors also will increase mutual understanding and mitigate the perception of a faceless “other.” It also allows us to develop standard operating procedures that will reduce the risk of conflict arising from unexpected encounters. The more we can work with the Chinese, the more likely we are to understand their intentions, motivations, and concerns, allowing our planners to better analyze their actions.
What types of exercises best support these goals? While there are legal limitations on participation in certain types of exercises, such barriers are not insurmountable. Perhaps the most useful are multilateral exercises where the United States can act as a link between China and their neighbors, such as RIMPAC or fleet reviews. Port visits to civilian harbors also can build trust. By inviting Chinese ships to Honolulu, San Francisco, or Seattle, we can show the epitome of our diversity and values. Instead of regular trips to Hong Kong or occasional trips to Qingdao, port visits to Mainland China’s success stories, such as Shanghai, Tianjin, or Xiamen, would enable China to display its modernity. Personnel exchanges, particularly to each nations’ war colleges, can contribute to mutual confidence. Reciprocal exchanges are hindered due to PLA policy that separates foreign military from PLA students, but changing this policy and allowing equivalent exchanges would build understanding of perspectives and culture.
The military is merely another tool for diplomacy, and the more peaceful overall relations are, the less likely war is. This is not to say the United States should not prepare and train for conflict with the Chinese; that would be strategically negligent. But to refuse to cooperate and attempt to work together is equally so.
Lieutenant Billings is a surface warfare officer and an Olmsted Scholar. He is currently studying Chinese politics and diplomacy at Fudan University in Shanghai, China.