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Constant Military-to-Military Dialogue with China Is Critical

Constant Military-to-Military Dialogue with China Is Critical

President Obama must make clear to President Hu why constant military-to-military dialogue is critical.

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At a time of almost constant strategic and economic dialogue between the United States and China, the relationship between the two countries’ respective militaries has been marked by a bumpy trajectory of start–stop–restart. As President Obama welcomes China’s President Hu Jintao to a White House summit today, the United States has a unique opportunity to advance a central but lagging component of the relationship: military-to-military relations.

During the 2009 presidential summit in Beijing, Presidents Hu and Obama committed to advancing strategic trust through an increased frequency of military-to-military exchange. The new level of exchange was intended to enhance practical cooperation and foster greater understanding of each other’s intentions within an increasingly complex global security environment. Events and reactions since the first summit have sorely tested this commitment.

Following the announcement of a U.S. arms package sale to Taiwan in January last year, China angrily cut off military exchange. Over the summer, a series of confrontations arose over the South and East China Seas, followed by tense disagreement over how to respond to North Korea’s attacks on South Korea’s Cheonan warship and Yeongpyeong island. Senior U.S. and Chinese military officials are now talking again, but there should be no illusion about the difficulty of this engagement.

Indeed, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent meeting with Chinese counterpart Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guangjie quickly ran into disagreements over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, China’s military modernization, and dates for much-needed strategic security talks on nuclear posture, missile defense, and cyber attacks. Both sides did agree to look for ways to increase military cooperation, with Chinese Army General Chen Bingde accepting Gates’s invitation to visit Washington this year. But President Obama needs to engage President Hu directly on this issue during their summit because real world tensions could spiral into competition, misperception, and miscalculation between our two countries.

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