China-U.S. Military Ties on the Upswing

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 19

In less than two years, China-U.S. military relations have experienced a remarkable turnaround. President Xi Jinping in particular has expressed strong support for developing more military exchanges as part of his concept of a “new type great power relationship” between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. The upward momentum began with Xi’s successful visit to the Pentagon in February 2012, when he was preparing to become China’s new president. It has been visible in an increased number of senior-level exchanges, an expanding range of dialogue topics, and growing joint military activities. But the military relationship still remains the weakest link in the overall bilateral relationship, weakly rooted with little habit of cooperation, and vulnerable to a resurgence of the Taiwan issue, a China-U.S. military clash in the East China Sea or some other mishap that could abruptly suspend Sino-American defense ties again. These new efforts from the Chinese side are being framed as “a new type of military to military relationship,” establishing them as part of a broader effort to reshape Chinese foreign relations that reaches into all kinds of diplomacy. It is, however, clear that this idea involves demands placed on China’s counterparts as well as offers of increased interaction.

Traditional Barriers

Despite decades of military-to-military talks, and the creation of several China-U.S. defense confidence-building measures, bilateral defense relations between China and the United States still have an on-again, off-again character, based on a transactional approach in which they are repeatedly linked (and disrupted) by other variables. Since the mid-1990s, the two defense communities have negotiated a series of bilateral defense and security agreements and confidence-building measures, seeking to reduce tensions and advance their common security interests. These measures have promoted a better understanding of each party’s security concerns, but they remain highly constrained and vulnerable to disruption from external shocks. Incidents between U.S. and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) ships and planes near China have repeatedly disrupted bilateral relations (International Herald Leader, August 23). Disputes over Taiwan have also regularly led to the suspension of China-U.S. defense relations (Wenweipo, August 21; China Review News, August 22;, August 21).   

Although in public the PRC government has declared its commitment to military transparency, the PLA has taken few steps to address U.S. complaints about the lack of reciprocity in bilateral defense openness. In practice, the PLA’s inferior capabilities lead China to reject moves towards defense transparency for fear that the Pentagon would exploit the increased intelligence to Beijing’s disadvantage. As a rising military power, the Chinese government does not want to codify existing disparities in force capacities or military operating patterns that currently favor the United States. U.S. restrictions prevent most bilateral technology transfers, the main area in which China sees benefits in enhanced military ties (Global Times, August 22).

Several factors have impeded China-U.S. military relations. The most important obstacle has been the underlying contentious nature of the Chinese-U.S. relationship, which is manifested most acutely by tensions over Taiwan. Strained PRC-U.S. political relations, which reflect deep differences between Chinese and American leaders over values as well as their competition for influence in East Asia, have generated mutual suspicions that provide an unfavorable environment for flourishing defense relations. As leaders of the weaker power, moreover, Chinese policy makers fear that excessive transparency could provide Americans with insights into their military vulnerabilities. Influenced by a strategic tradition that emphasizes deception, many Chinese strategists also believe that opaqueness assists in deterring potential adversaries by complicating their military planning. Equally, Chinese policymakers do not want to draw foreign attention to their continued military buildup. Moreover, defense policymakers in both countries have generally resisted measures that constrain their military operations and capabilities. Finally, the perceived costs of suspending contacts have been minimal to the national security interests of either party, since the relationship has never accumulated great value or achievements.

Unfortunately, the PLA’s penchant for secrecy increases the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculation. It also alarms China’s neighbors, who are strengthening their own military capabilities just in case their worst-case evaluations regarding the PLA’s goals and capabilities prove accurate. Beijing then responds in reciprocal fashion, contributing to an East Asian arms race that has been gathering momentum in recent years.

In the past, the rise and fall of defense ties had little impact on the overall China-U.S. relationship, and indeed was often a product of these changes. Both sides see curtailing defense ties as a “pressure-relief valve” to signal displeasure with the others’ policies at minimal costs. At times, the PLA-Pentagon dialogue has been almost entirely frozen. But this compartmentalization is becoming more difficult as China’s rising military power becomes a more salient feature in the overall relationship. Chinese and U.S. strategists now openly see the others’ capabilities and activities as threatening, with Chinese writers complaining of containment and Americans of Beijing’s perceived anti-access/area denial policies.

New Type Military Relations

This year’s June presidential summit between Xi Jinping and Barack Obama and the July U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) and Strategic Security Dialogue (SSD) in Washington both supported China-U.S. military ties. When the Chinese leader met his U.S. counterpart at their informal presidential summit in Sunnyland, California in June 2013, Xi told Obama that he sought a “new pattern of military relations” compatible with the new type of overall great power relations he wanted to see between China and the United States (Global Times, June 9). [1] During their July dialogues, China and the United States agreed to "strengthen the military-to-military relationship and to make efforts to raise the relationship to a new level” (CNTV, August 17).

Despite increased contacts between the two countries, Chinese commentary­—including articles republished from China Military Online to the web site of the Ministry of Defense—have continued to raise the issue of the “three barriers” (China Military Online and PRC Ministry of National Defense, June 14)—which are U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, restrictions on U.S. defense technology sharing with China, and U.S. air and naval surveillance activities near Chinese territory. Another June commentary by a professor at the National Defense University argued that the “ball is in the United States’s court” to make changes that will allow the relationship to improve (People’s Daily Online, June 27).

Like many of its predecessors, the Obama administration has been eager to develop China-U.S. defense relations. U.S. officials worry that the PLA’s domestic and international isolation could present problems given the importance of the Chinese military in Beijing’s national security decisions. In their view, the PLA needs more contact with the outside world to understand it better, which Washington and other outsiders hope will reduce its fears of the United States and somewhat decrease the prospects of war through miscommunication and miscalculation. The Chinese military’s growing overseas presence and China’s expanding security ties throughout the globe are increasing the frequency of occasions when the two militaries are operating in each other’s vicinity, raising the risks of escalation of a local conflict in which Beijing and Washington happen to back opposing parties. Although President Xi likely may not share these views, he does want to sustain decent relations with the United States despite the many sources of tension in their bilateral relationship, and sees boosting defense ties as a good way to counterbalance the friction over China’s territorial conflicts in Asia, differences over Iran or North Korea, or economic tensions with the United States.

Last month’s visit by General Chang Wanquan, state councilor and minister of national defense of the PRC, to the United States was noteworthy in several respects. The general went to new places, held wide-ranging discussions with senior U.S. officials, and made frank but instructive comments to the Pentagon media. Chang and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel confirmed plans to expand China-U.S. military exercises, exchanges and other activities, including counterpiracy drills near Somalia and a humanitarian rescue exercise near Hawaii (China Daily, August 13).

Most importantly, Chang’s visit sustained the upward momentum in the China-U.S. defense relationship that has been evident since early 2012. In his opening remarks at a Pentagon news conference, Chang said that, “The purpose of my visit is to implement the important consensus reached by President Xi Jinping and President Obama of building a new model of major country relationship based on mutual respect and win-win cooperation, to further increase mutual understanding, to enhance mutual trust, to promote mutual cooperation and to push forward the sound and stable development of our national and military relations” (U.S. Department of Defense, August 19).

According to Chinese sources, PLA and Pentagon leaders agreed on five principles during their August meetings in Washington (Xinhua, August 20):

1.    Military ties between the two countries represent an important component of their bilateral relations.

2.    Mutual visits by senior military officials should continue to deepen contacts and mutual trust.

3.    Both sides have an increasingly important obligation to maintain peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

4.    Both militaries have an array of common interests and will cooperate more regarding non-traditional security areas such as humanitarian assistance, disaster relief and counterpiracy.

5.    Both sides agreed to cooperate on archival research on the fate of missing soldiers from the Korean War.

Shortly after Chang’s visit, the PLA Navy (PLAN) joined the U.S. and other fleets in their second anti-piracy exercise in the Gulf of Aden. Next year, the PLAN will for the first time become a full participant in the U.S.-led Rim of the Pacific Exercise (RIMPAC), the world’s largest multinational naval drill. Additional joint military activities are under review (PRC Ministry of National Defense, August 25).

This summer, PLAN midshipmen participated in an exchange program with the U.S. Naval Academy. This engagement provided an opportunity for young Chinese and American sailors to develop contacts and cultural insights that they can draw on throughout their military careers. Although a recent poll from the Pew Research Center found extensive popular mistrust between Chinese and Americans, the survey found that young people in both countries were most likely to have an open mind about the positive characteristics of the other country (Pew Research Center, February 7).

U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh, and Secretary Hagel all plan to travel to China. Chang reaffirmed China’s interest, expressed this summer by President Xi to Obama, in establishing a procedure for advanced reciprocal notification of major Chinese and U.S. military activities, and for developing rules of behavior for their air and naval activities in particular. These exercises and exchanges should help the Chinese and U.S. militaries understand one another’s tactics, techniques and procedures better. The resulting insights could help prevent miscalculations, miscommunications and other problems that could lead to unsought military confrontations—something Hagel warned about in his June 1 Singapore speech on Asian security.

Old Style Power Politics

An important goal of China-U.S. military relations is to avoid an inadvertent war between the two countries. Defense diplomacy could also contribute to avoiding a war. Under Xi, Chinese analysts have been promoting the term “New Type of International Relations,” (xinxing guoji guanxi; also “New Type of Great Power Relations,” xinxing daguo guangxi). In Washington, this formulation is generally seen to mean that China and the United States will strive to eschew the traditional logic of power politics and avoid a hegemonic war for primacy in the Asia-Pacific region even as China’s power and influence continues to rise. [2] Historically, such great power transitions have been fertile ground for confrontation, since the established power typically resists the rising country’s efforts to strengthen its military, seize territory and colonies, and otherwise remake its region into a sphere of influence in which the other countries must constrain their foreign and sometimes domestic politics in ways acceptable to the new hegemon.

In the view of Chinese scholars, since the Cold War, the international system has been evolving from a unipolar to a multipolar system, and from a Western-centric structure to a more globally balanced system. Emerging powers like China benefit economically and in other ways from globalization, while the West’s relative power is declining due to its relatively weaker economic performance and domestic governance problems. Nonetheless, this argument continues, the established powers resist the increasing demands for greater power and respect by the emerging powers, leading to global tensions. This view is most often used to explain relations between China and the United States. [3]

Still, there are several reasons why we might expect to avoid such a disastrous outcome. First, there is a growing recognition among Chinese foreign policy analysts that the more aggressively they behave, the more likely they will provoke a balancing coalition by their neighbors and by the United States. [4] Second, China has and will continue to benefit from many existing international norms, regimes, and institutions; it may therefore recognize that it has no need to replace them. While the Chinese government might oppose some international norms, such as the Proliferation Security Initiative or liberal democratic norms, Beijing can more or less ignore them without provoking sustained foreign resistance. Third, the ideological competition between China and the United States has declined from its Maoist nadir in the 1960s. The Chinese government no longer seeks to change other countries’ regimes. Chinese scholars see the United States as still striving to divide China or subvert its regime, now with the novel use of social media tools. [5] But this perception is incorrect—some Americans may have that hope, but it has not been an operational goal of U.S. foreign policy for decades. Fourth, whereas a few years ago Chinese policy makers might have seen the United States as a declining power that was withdrawing from the eastern Pacific, the Obama administration’s Asian Pivot and other developments have made clear that the United States plans to remain an Asian power for a long time.

But while these factors make a hegemonic war between China and the United States less likely, there are reasons for pessimism about the possibility of a deep China-U.S. defense partnership. Chinese analysts are clearer in terms of what they want to avoid—a war with the United States—than what positive results they hope to achieve. They also focus on the process—the need for more dialogue—rather than concrete outcomes. There is also a sense that the burden is on the United States to avoid the logic of confrontation by accommodating Chinese interests regarding territorial disputes, human rights and other issues. In its most recent annual white paper on national security, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense criticized U.S. officials for “strengthening their Asia Pacific military alliances, expanding their military presence in the region and frequently making the situation there tenser.”  Chinese experts quoted at the time of Chang’s visit insisted that bilateral defense relations would only improve if the U.S. abandoned its efforts to contain China’s rising influence (China Daily, August 19). In addition, many Chinese analysts resist the great power label for their country, and see themselves simultaneously as a developed and developing nation. This conflicted identity can sometimes make it difficult for China’s leaders to define their national interests and pursue a coherent policy. Furthermore, much of China’s reasoning appears instrumental in nature. They believe China would benefit from avoiding a war with the United States, but there is not an ideological conviction that good China-U.S. relations represent a value in itself. Lastly, Sino-American tensions over Taiwan, military activities in the disputed waters of the East and South China Seas, and mutual military buildups have been downplayed rather than resolved.

On balance, China-U.S. military relations should continue to improve in coming months due to the reciprocal military leadership visits, the preoccupation of the leaders of China and the United States with other international issues and the desire of both governments to avoid a Sino-U.S. military confrontation. But accidents can always happen, and an aggressive ship captain, wayward airplane or other incident could still easily derail the improving China-U.S. military ties, as has happened all too often in the past.

The author would like to thank Man Ching Lam, Su Wang and Mengu Wang for their assistance with Chinese-language sources.


1.    See also Zhao Xiaozhuo, “Construction of China-U.S. new military relations faces new historical opportunities,” Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, August 14.

2.    For a review of how the concept and related constructs (“China Dream”) is often understood differently among Chinese analysts see Peter Mattis, “Out with the New, In with the Old: Interpreting China’s ‘New Type of International Relations’,” China Brief, Vol. 13, Issue 9; and Peter Mattis, “Chinese Dreams: An Ideological Bulwark, Not a Framework for Sino-American Relations,” China Brief, Vol. 13, Issue 12.

3.    For example see Su Changhe, “Thinking about the Relationship between China and the World at a New Historical Starting Point,” World Economics and Politics, No.8, 2012, pp.4–19; Guo, Xiaoqin & Wang, Gonglong, “Constructing Sino-U.S. New-styled Big-power Relations—Studies on China’s U.S. Policy Thinking since the Turn of the Century,” Global Review, 2013, No.1, pp.39–51; Canrong Jin and Weilai Dai, “Building A New Type of Major Country Relationship: Analysis of China-U.S. Strategic and Economic Dialogue,” Journal of International Security Studies, 2013, No.2, pp.13­–23; and Wen Li, “New Great Power Relations in Stability System,” Studies on Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping Theories, 2012, No.10, pp.89–95.

4.    For examples from major academic foreign policy experts, see Zhu Feng, “Sino-American Strategic Competitors Relations and China’s Response,” International and Strategic Studies Report 78 (February 25, 2013): 2–4; and “Yan Xuetong: China Should Offer Protection to Neighboring Countries in Order to Reduce American Influence,” Xinhua, June 1, 2011.

5.    Huo Wenqi “Weibo Becomes Important Battleground for Pushing ‘Peaceful Evolution’ and Color Revolution for the West: An Interview with PLA National Defense University Professor Lt. Li Dianren,” CSS Today, reprinted from Global View. While some authors state that there is ideological competition between China and the West, or at least an attempt to ideologically infiltrate China from the West, other experts claim that ideological competition is not that important at present. It may be self-serving for Chinese experts to claim that there is no ideological competition while drumming up nationalism at home; another explanation is that experts who stress ideological competition represent a distinct but limited line of thought among Chinese experts—perhaps representative of particular segments of society (for example, the military).