The two high-profile visits by senior Obama administration officials had a major impact on U.S.-China relations last month. From April 7 to April 10, Chuck Hagel made his first official visit to China as U.S. Secretary of Defense. He was given unprecedented access to China’s aircraft carrier and engaged in some frank public exchanges with his Chinese hosts. Subsequently, President Barack Obama traveled to four East Asian countries of importance to China—Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, and the Philippines. Although Obama did not visit China, Chinese commentators noted how U.S.-China relations were a major subject of his trip. They also offered comprehensive critiques of the “Asia Pivot”—the rebalancing of U.S. attention and other assets toward East Asia—and its implications for China. Chinese analysts thought the U.S. visits failed to thread the needle between reassuring allies of U.S. commitment and assuring Beijing that Washington is not trying to contain China.
Mil-Mil Ties on the Upswing?
China-U.S. military-to-military relations have grown in size, broadened in the subjects covered, and continued without interruption despite the inevitable disputes that invariably plague such a complex relationship. The sustained momentum in the defense relationship has been evident since Xi Jinping conducted a successful visit to the Pentagon in February 2012, when he was preparing to become China’s new president. He later told Obama at their June 2013 informal summit in Sunnyland California, that he wanted to see “a new pattern of military relations” compatible with the overarching “new type of great power relations” he sought with the United States (China Military Online, May 5). Since then, their militaries have engaged in many China-U.S. military exercises, exchanges, and other joint activities that have continued despite public clashes over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, a near collision involving the U.S. guided missile cruiser USS Cowpens (CG 63) and a ship accompanying China’s sole aircraft carrier in international waters of the South China Sea as well as Obama’s meeting the Dalai Lama in the White House, and the Asian Pivot, which many Chinese commentaries depict as designed to contain China’s rising power and influence (China.org, April 17).
Chinese commentators now more readily agree with their U.S. counterparts that these cooperative defense activities could help their militaries understand one another’s tactics, techniques, and procedures better and that the resulting insights could help prevent miscalculations, miscommunications, and other problems that could lead to unsought military confrontations (China.org, April 1). They also have applauded the frank tone of recent exchanges as having the same salutary effect of making clearer both sides interests and concerns: “The verbal sparring between Hagel and top Chinese military officials reflects the making of a new type of relationship between the two countries and means a straight question will be given a straight answer” (Caixin Online, April15).
Defense Minister Chang Wanquan explicitly told the Chinese media last month that his dealings with Hagel aimed to “implement the consensus reached by Chinese president Xi Jinping and his U.S. counterpart Barack Obama to develop a new model of military-to-military relations based on the new model of China-U.S. relations [in which they would] work together to push forward steady and healthy bilateral military ties” (Xinhua, April 9). During his four-day stay, Hagel became the first senior foreign official to tour the Liaoning, spending two hours on the aircraft carrier while the vessel was docked at the Yuchi Naval base in Shandong. The Pentagon had explicitly requested the tour and described the Chinese decision to provide it as “an honest, genuine effort to be open about this brand new capability that they’re trying to develop (Reuters, April 7). The Chinese media said that the gesture was “both a sign of a new openness in the Chinese military and of the importance it attaches to Sino-U.S. military relations” (Caixin Online, April 15).
Hagel also met with the leaders of China’s national security establishment in Beijing and engaged in detailed and frank discussions with his Chinese hosts. One excursion brought him to the Changping Non-Commissioned Officers (NCO) School in Beijing, where he had lunch with the cadets (China Military Online, April 10). According to Chang, who was meeting Hagel for the third time, the Pentagon and the PLA agreed to create a new maritime notification mechanism and establish standards of behavior for their major navy and air force activities in international waters. They also committed to expand discussions to include a dialogue on anti-terrorism and how “to strengthen military-to-military cooperation on regional and international issues to maintain the peace and stability in Asia-Pacific region” (Xinhua, April 9). Chinese commentators claim “Tthe two militaries have reached a seven-point consensus, which has set the tone for the future of bilateral military relations. Both sides agreed to implement the consensus of developing the new model of China-U.S. military-to-military relationship, to advance the process of establishing a military notification mechanism of major military activities, to further strengthen military exchanges and expand areas for practical cooperation, and to further strengthen cooperation on international and regional issues” (China.org, April 17). When the biennial Western Pacific Naval Symposium (WPNS) met later that month in Qingdao, China removed its earlier objections to the proposed Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), allowing for the unanimous adoption at the conference of what one Chinese scholar termed “a win-win option for all” (China-U.S. Focus, April 26).
Nevertheless, Sino-American differences were evident during Hagel’s visit and after, in U.S. policies towards China’s territorial disputes with its Asian neighbors as well as their cyber security approaches. Regarding the former, while Hagel emphasized that Washington would accept whatever substantive outcome to these disputes Beijing and its neighbors agreed to, he had earlier in his 10-day trip insisted that the parties refrained from applying coercive measures, singling out China’s sudden declaration last November of an air-defense identification zone over waters administered by Japan. Chinese experts, such as professors Zhang Qingmin at Peking University and Zhu Chenghu at China’s National Defense University, said that Hagel had disappointed those who thought his aversion to the Iraq War and experience in Vietnam would lead him to demilitarize U.S. policies towards China, Instead, they alleged that Hagel had criticized China more aggressively and sided with Tokyo in its territorial dispute with Beijing than any recent U.S. defense leader (Beijing Review, April 14). General Chang attacked what he called “the false remarks and actions by some U.S. defense and government officials recently on the Diaoyu Islands and the South China Sea issue” and urged “the U.S. side to correct their mistakes and safeguard regional peace and stability with concrete actions” including fulfilling “its commitment on taking no position and not taking sides on territorial disputes, so as to avoid sending wrong signals” (Xinhua, April 9). In responding to Hagel’s implied warning to Beijing, made shortly before his arrival in China, that, “You cannot go around the world and redefine boundaries and violate territorial integrity and sovereignty of nations by force, coercion and intimidation whether it’s in small islands in the Pacific or large nations in Europe,” General Fan Changlong, deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission, bluntly complained that, “The Chinese people, including myself, are dissatisfied with such remarks” (South China Morning Post, April 15).
Another noticeable gap was the Chinese disinterest in accepting the U.S. offer for a more comprehensive dialogue on cyber security. In a joint press conference with Defense Minister Gen. Chang, Hagel said that he “emphasized in our meetings this morning the need for both the United States and China to be more open with each other about our capabilities and our intentions in this critically important domain [of cybersecurity].” Echoing the more general U.S. view regarding military transparency, Hagel said “Greater openness about cyber reduces the risks that misunderstanding and misperception could lead to miscalculation. More transparency will strengthen China-U.S. relations” (U.S. Department of Defense, April 8). Before the trip, a U.S. delegation had provide China with a compressive briefing on U.S. cyber defense policies in the hope, thus far unrealized, that China would shed more light on its own cyber defense doctrine and practices (New York Daily News, April 7). The last few years have seen a welcome Chinese effort to become more transparent in its defense activities and capabilities, but the NSA scandal and other developments have limited mutual openness in the cyber domain (“Cyber Transparency for Thee, But Not For Me,” China Brief, April 18).
Chinese commentators applauded the tough public stance taken by Chinese leaders in these public exchanges. To take one example, one editorial in a party-run newspaper observed “Although it seems very rare for China to respond so strongly and openly to Hagel’s remarks, in fact, it makes sense. Because Hagel’s many remarks about [the United States], Japan and China, which distorted facts and deviated from consensus, have touched China’s core interests and contributed to some countries’ arrogance, bringing threats to peace and stability in Asian-Pacific region”(Guangming Daily, April 13). Some writers also acknowledged China’s “selective transparency” in which the Chinese deliberately reveal new capabilities at opportune or embarrassing moments, a practice that could serve as a deterrence (China Military Online, May 5). In his speech at the WPNS, General Fan said "No country should expect China to swallow the bitter pill of our sovereignty, national security or development interests being compromised" (Reuters, April 23).
Obama and the Pivot
Although President Obama did not visit China on Asia trip and U.S.-China relations were not a key agenda item, Chinese writers called China the “elephant in the room” of his Asian trip (Xinhua, April 24) At the start of his trip, The People’s Daily called on Obama not to be a “troublemaker” and to cease “conniving with” Japan and the Philippines “and obscuring the distinction between right and wrong” (April 24). Observing that “it is impossible for the United States to skip China,” Chinese authors noted that Obama acknowledged Beijing’s help was indispensable for managing North Korea (Xinhua, April 24). Nonetheless, they also emphasized Obama’s unusually strong affirmation that all territories administered by Tokyo, including the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, came under the protection of Article 5 of the Japan-U.S. Mutual Security Treaty (Xinhua, May 1). The Chinese government did not especially welcome Obama’s presence or message. In his regular press conference, Foreign Minister spokesperson Qin Gang depicted the United States as a meddling external power stirring up trouble among Asian countries: "We will tell the world that security in Asia should be determined by Asian countries, and countries are able and wise enough to safeguard and promote security in Asia through cooperation” (Global Times, April 30).
In general, the Chinese media cited experts who saw the Obama administration torn between two directions as the United States pivots to Asia—one drive is to strengthen the Japan-U.S. alliance to boost U.S. regional power against China, while the other is to work with Beijing to establish a new type of great power relationship (China Military Online, May 5). “Throughout his four-nation trip in Asia,” wrote a Xinhua reporter, “Obama is trying to strike a delicate balance between its ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy and its ever-expanding relations with Beijing” (Xinhua, April 28). A balance, most commentators suggested, Obama failed to strike. Noted analyst Wang Fan, Assistant President of China Foreign Affairs University, observed “Because of its economic woes at home, the US is finding it hard to meet various demands of its alliances…To maintain its dominance in East Asia, it has to rely on its alliances. And to get its allies to do their part, the [United States] has to act as their advocate in regional hotspots and potential crises” (China-U.S. Focus, April 30). Wang’s assessment was widely echoed elsewhere (Global Times, April 30; China Daily, April 30; Xinhua, April 28). Another opinion piece stated “From Tokyo to Manila, Obama has tried to pick his words so as not to antagonize Beijing. But from the U.S.-Japan joint statement to the new U.S.-Philippines defense agreement, it is increasingly obvious that Washington is taking Beijing as an opponent” (China Daily, April 29). Obama’s balancing act also failed, according to Chinese analysts, because the trip did not yield major economic, political, or strategic gains and exposed contradictions in the president’s Asia policies (China-U.S. Focus, May 5; Global Times, May 3; Xinhua, May 1).
China’s mixed response to both visits underscore how major differences with Washington persist over the value of the U.S. military presence in East Asia and stabilizing effect of U.S. Asia policy. Despite progress in Chinese transparency, the information Beijing releases still pales in comparison to that made public by the Pentagon. U.S. efforts to discuss cyber security issues continue to meet stiff Chinese resistance, while Chinese transparency is often selectively targeted for deterrence rather than reassurance. Chinese and Americans acknowledge that the underlying factors that sustain China-U.S. strategic competition—their regional rivalries, military buildups, different geopolitical environments, and contrasting political systems—will not soon vanish. Ni Lexiong, director of a defense policy center at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, observed that “it’s a good thing the two countries are talking things out, but this will not change the course that will see a rising nation clashing with the existing hegemony” (South China Morning Post, April 15). Another commentator attributed the shifting course of China-U.S. defense relations to the “largely unspoken nature of the antagonism between the two countries: the United States wants to maintain its hegemony while China wants to expand its security position” (Caixin Online, April15). Bilateral ties are unlikely to see more than evolutionary improvements as long as the underlying security relationship between both countries remains so potentially adversarial.
The author would like to tank Man Ching Lam and Scarlett Ho for their research assistance.