Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson’s visit to China, in the aftermath of the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s (PCA’s) ruling on the South China Sea case between the Philippines and China, raises a question about our policy of military-to-military (mil-to-mil) engagements with China.
For some, simply broaching this issue touches an ideological nerve, one that produces hyperbolic replies, suggesting that if you do not support unabated mil-to-mil engagement then you must be in favor of open conflict. If you criticize the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it is because you want thermonuclear war.
This reflexive response represents an ideological belief strongly held by a community of so-called China experts, hereafter referred to as the “engagers.” Most frequently, the engagers justify their ideological belief based on the thesis that says, “When they are talking, they aren’t shootin’.” And if some engagement is good, then more must be better.
Even though no one is shooting in the South China Sea, it is worth taking a closer look at China’s actual track record during high-profile visits.
China launched the first flight of the J-20 fighter during then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’ May 2012 visit. More recently, during Secretary of State John Kerry’s visit, a PLA Air Force J-10 fighter conducted a 100-foot intercept of a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft on 6 June, and three days later the PLA Navy (PLAN) made its first intrusion into the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands. These actions seem to demonstrate that our mil-to-mil engagement has had little effect on moderating China’s behavior and actions.
So to suggest, as many of the engagers do, that the CNO’s recent visit has contributed to a “long line” of diplomatic and engagement successes is to disregard the past decade of Chinese actions. Increasing mil-to-mil engagement with China strongly coincides with increasing Chinese confidence and aggression.
The engagers suggest the CNO’s visit was necessary to gain insight into China’s intentions and to obtain assurance and provide reassurance that the overall U.S.-China relationship—especially in the economic arena—would remain solid. The CNO’s visit coming just five days after the PCA’s ruling, however, was widely perceived as a U.S. appeasement to the Chinese. China’s Admiral Wu Shengli, Commander of the PLAN, lectured Admiral Richardson on how China will never accept the court’s ruling or stop building up its islands in the South China Sea. While I am certain the CNO does not believe he was involved in appeasement, it does not change that Beijing has played it as such.
The real question then is why do we keep giving mil-to-mil engagement such a sacrosanct position in our bilateral relationship with China when the evidence of its success is so unsatisfactory? Unconstrained mil-to-mil engagement has fed the domestic prestige of the PLAN, which has emboldened its expansionism. For example, on the same day the PCA was releasing its findings on China’s coercive seizure of Philippine coastal rights, the PLAN was toasted at a reception in the middle of Pearl Harbor.
Engagement with China’s military has discouraged U.S. allies and partners by reinforcing the “New Type Great Power Relationship” narrative, which contends the United States and China will divvy up lesser countries’ interests, because great-power core interests are all that matter. To make matters worse, the PLAN officers in Pearl Harbor snubbed Japanese officers attending a 2016 Rim-of-the-Pacific exercise engagement, contributing to the perception the United States was allowing, even encouraging, China’s supremacy as a great power.
In essence, we have helped China undermine international law in East Asia by treating the PLAN as an honored and welcome partner even as China rejects the PCA’s ruling and the rule of law.
It is time to get back to the basic functions of government. Let the State Department conduct diplomacy and engagement. The U.S. Defense Department should do what it is supposed to do best—fight and win our nation’s wars. In the Far East, stop “engagement at all costs.”