Mil-to-mil relation, a stabilizer in China-US relations

China Military
Zhang Tao

With China's growing national strength, mil-to-mil relation has indeed become the stabilizer of China-US relations. It has come to such a low point today that there is simply no room for further worsening and major armed conflict is out of the question - this is the bottom line for China-US relations.

The trend of competition between the two countries is irreversible, but there is room for pragmatic cooperation between the two sides in six areas including crisis management, dialogue on nuclear issues and cyberspace.

However, Donald Trump, being a typical businessman with a strong rightist style, may play the card of the Taiwan question, where China is most vulnerable, after he comes into office. This "re-linking" or "general linking" approach is the largest uncertainty for China.

BEIJING, Jan. 22 (ChinaMil) -- Ten years ago, some experts proposed that the mil-to-mil relation between the two countries should serve as a stabilizer in bilateral relations, but others disagreed. Major issues that caused substantial undulation in China-US relations, including the aircraft crash in the South China Sea and arms sale to China's Taiwan, both appeared in the military field.

Today, the mil-to-mil relation has indeed become the stabilizer of China-US relations. It keeps conflicts between the two sides from escalating into armed combat and won't worsen further after reaching a certain point - this is the bottom line for China-US relations.

Trend of competition irreversible?

This is decided by two basic reasons. First, the rise of China's national strength forces the US to maintain communication and consultation with it. The US military won't respect a weak military. Second, compared with ten years ago, the PLA's training tasks, scope and participation in international security affairs has been enhanced across the board. PLA troops will inevitably engage with the universal US troops around the world and there is a larger possibility of misjudgment, which requires the two militaries to communicate more closely. The mil-to-mil relation between China and the US has shown some new trends recently. The two sides still have vast room for pragmatic cooperation, but they are also more competitive against each other. In the eyes of the Pentagon, some of the US military's key advantages are not so obvious today. It was extremely confident in the past because it had weapons and technologies that other countries didn't, but now such superiority is fading with the technological progress in major countries like Russia and China, which has reached such an advanced level that the US Department of Defense can no longer sit tight.

Therefore, the US military has made constant adjustments in recent years and reevaluated its rivals. The US National Military Strategy issued in 2015 shifted the focus from extremist organizations and terrorist NGOs to the military of major countries as the main target of combat, and a series of corresponding strategic measures such as the "third offset strategy" were launched.

Analysis of American think tank reports and US military ordinances indicated that the US military is making efforts to adapt to such changes. Its imaginary targets not only include weak enemies, but also strong ones and major countries.

The US Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work said openly that the US military shouldn't just depend on technological advantages, but should give full play to human initiative. This meant they were not so confident in their technological advantages anymore and had to root for themselves to cope with the so-called "military challenges from major countries".

But competition and pragmatic cooperation are not mutually exclusive. The US believes there is still vast room for pragmatic cooperation between the two militaries in six key areas including crisis management, dialogue on nuclear issues, cyberspace and maritime security.

"Biggest impact may come from the relation between US and China's Taiwan"

It's highly possible that the US and China's Taiwan will further tighten their ties and the potential cross-Straits risk is growing. Trump also made the China-US mil-to-mil relations uncertain. The Korean Peninsula, Taiwan Strait and South China Sea are its main concerns in diplomatic and security policies.

The Republican Think Tank Heritage Foundation has seen the difference between Trump and other politicians. While politicians usually start with the easy and then observe which way the wind blows before proceeding to the difficult, Trump is much more practical and eyes the biggest project right in the beginning. Therefore, if Trump were to make deals with China, he might first play the Taiwan card to pressure China. Besides, many of Trump's new officials are pro-Taiwan and a closer US-Taiwan tie is highly possible.

Any substantial development in that relation, especially in the military field, will definitely impose a great impact on the mil-to-mil relation between China and the US. As the National Defense Authorization Act was passed in 2017, America's development of military relation with Taiwan is endorsed by its domestic laws, and the next obstacle to the Trump administration is the China-US communiqués.

Another uncertainty comes from the "linking" approach that the Trump administration may adopt. During Obama's term, China and the US actually applied the "delinking" principle when dealing with bilateral relations, namely addressing issues in the fields of economy and trade, regional security, maritime security and global climate change separately.

Therefore, their conflict in specific fields only had local impact without affecting the collaboration in other fields or the general situation of bilateral ties. This is like the watertight compartment in a ship. The ship can sail on even if water leaks in one compartment because the others are watertight.

However, the incoming owner of the oval office may adopt the "linking" approach, connecting all those fields into a whole and using security to affect trade, for example. This is like drilling holes in the watertight compartment, the consequence of which is that conflict in individual fields will spread to other fields and even affect the overall situation of bilateral ties.

Disclaimer: The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author named Yu Dong from the Southern Weekly and do not reflect the views of does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.


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