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.
Here’s what needs to be done. First, the United States must get its economic house in order. This may sound irrelevant at first blush, but the notion that the economic decline of the United States is inevitable and irreversible hurts American security—even when U.S. military capabilities remain considerable. U.S. national security has long rested on the strength of our economy, but creeping doubts about American economic resiliency feed Beijing’s perception that Washington is a declining power. This gives the Chinese little incentive to heed U.S. calls for greater responsibility, cooperation, and transparency.
That is why moving forward on the American economic challenge of creating jobs by promoting economic competitiveness and innovation while reducing our long-term budget deficits are more important to U.S. security interests than the size of the Pentagon budget. The character of American enterprise and resourcefulness should not be underestimated, but it requires unified actions by the United States and effective leadership by U.S. policymakers. President Obama and Congress need to make clear that they are up to the task, and then prove it in the coming months. There is no higher national security priority.
Second, China needs to move its national security institutions into the 21st century. The Chinese must improve their capabilities and institutions for policy planning and crisis response to include an open path for communications during a crisis. President Obama was able to reach out quickly to President Hu during the most recent crisis on the Korean peninsula, but the U.S. military needs a reliable communications link into the People’s Liberation Army and the Chinese Ministry of Defense when direct military-to-military exchange is essential or when an urgent message needs to be conveyed.
Chinese national security entities operate largely behind closed doors, often without formal civilian integration. But when a crisis develops, the two sides need a mechanism to avoid misunderstanding and miscalculation. The lack of such mechanisms was particularly apparent over the last few months in the waters off the Korean peninsula. This lack of communications capabilities makes difficult the expressed objective of both the United States and China in the 2009 joint communiqué to “promoting the building of a harmonious world of enduring peace and common prosperity.” President Obama needs to hold President Hu to account on this issue, and then Hu needs to hold his own military to account.
As Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mike Mullen noted in recent remarks at the Center for American Progress, “now that both countries have agreed to resume routine contacts as part of this important aspect of our relationship, the hard work really begins.” The Washington summit of the two Presidents offers an exceptional moment to address current real world tensions, and to begin this hard work.
Rudy deLeon is Senior Vice President for National Security and International Policy at the Center for American Progress, and a former Deputy Secretary of Defense. Winny Chen is a policy analyst at the Center for American Progress.