Editor's Note: In early September, the US military worked out the first action plan for "freedom of navigation" in the South China Sea, according to which the US Pacific Command will carry out two to three operations for that purpose every month, as opposed to the four such operations in total conducted by the Obama administration. Does this forebode that the relationship between China and the US and their militaries will worsen under Trump's rule? How will Trump's "America first" principle affect China? How should China cope with the current status of bilateral relations?
Major General Yao Yunzhu, female former director of the China-US Defense Relation Center at the PLA Academy of Military Sciences and who refuted the American defense secretary with four questions at the 13th Shangri-La Dialogue, accepted interview and gave an in-depth analysis of the China-US relation against the background that China is earnestly strengthening its military.
Interviewee: Major General Yao Yunzhu
Interviewer: Tian Xubing from the Southern Weekly
Unfair acts and routine operations under hegemonic logic
Question: After Donald Trump came into power, the US Navy stopped the "freedom of navigation operations" in the South China Sea for a moment, but the Trump government recently approved the annual plan for conducting such operations, promoted the deployment of the anti-missile system and took steps to stir up the South China Sea. These new moves are highly targeted, and given Trump's personal character, many people feel worried about the future relation between the Chinese and American militaries. What do you think of the negative factors in this relation?
Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu: The US stopped the "freedom of navigation" operations earlier on not because of Trump's prudence, but because of policy censor.
When Obama was in power, every freedom of navigation operation conducted by the US military had to be approved by the White House and it was bound with politics, but now that Trump is in office, this power is delegated to the Department of Defense, and the operation became a routine instead of a political and diplomatic response to China.
The so-called freedom of navigation operations initiated by the US go far beyond the South China Sea. They challenge every sea area around the world and counter the provision in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea that "Every State has the right to establish the breadth of its territorial sea up to a limit not exceeding 12 nautical miles". Any country that requires a foreign military vessel to give prior notice of its harmless passage of the said country's territorial sea is challenged by the US.
Meanwhile, the frequent freedom of navigation operations conducted by the US in the South China Sea are definitely targeted at China. The PLA vessels and aircraft encounter American vessels more often, and are forced to take actions such as tracing, accompanying, interception and warning. In this process, there is a much higher probability of crisis and conflict, which poses a higher requirement on China's crisis control and handling capability.
The Memorandum of Understanding between China and the US specified the Codes for Unplanned Encounters between Chinese and American vessels and aircraft to avoid conflict and crisis, but they take place in China's exclusive economic zone. Therefore, to reduce the occurrence of such crisis, the best way is for the Americans not to come ( to conduct close-in reconnaissance).
The second negative factor is America's deployment of anti-missile systems in East Asia, THAAD being part of it. The fundamental threat to China is that those systems enable the US to better monitor, trace and make judgment about China's strategic deterrence, weaken China's strategic nuclear deterrence against America, and consequently break the China-US strategic balance that underpins the regional stability.
The third negative factor is the unpredictability of Trump himself and his administration. The uncertainty of Trump the person makes unexpected events more possible, and the uncertainty of the Trump government may make it adopt more unfriendly policies against China and the Chinese military.
Question：The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 and DeLay Amendment have obstructed the deep-level exchange between Chinese and American militaries for many years. The two acts specifically prohibit military exercise subjects that may improve the combat capability of the PLA Navy and set restrictions to their exchanges in at least 12 areas. What's your opinion of the legal obstacles to developing the relationship between the two militaries?
Maj. Gen. Yao: The two acts are unfair and inequitable, but they give the US a lot of flexibility. There is the provision that "no military exchange shall be carried out as long as the defense secretary deems it unfit", and 12 areas are pointed out in which military exchange is restricted. The final say rests with the American defense secretary.
When we propose an exchange program, the Americans can say no on the excuse of the National Defense Authorization Act, but when they propose an exchange program, even if it's against the act, they can say it's approved by the defense secretary as an exception.
It's unlikely that military exchange between China and the US will deepen to the level of operations. That's determined by the nature of the relationship between the two countries and the two militaries. It's not a simple issue of technical or legal procedures.
Mil-to-mil relation becomes more important in China-US relations
Question：In the past, mil-to-mil exchange between the two countries usually contracted or even suspended because of problems in bilateral relations, but they later would make efforts to restore and elevate the military exchange. What do you think is America's intention? In which areas do you think breakthroughs can be made in 2018, regular exchange between front-line commanders or consultation on the subjects of joint exercises?
Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu: From 1990 to 2013, every time the US took steps that challenged China's national interests, their mil-to-mil relation would be affected as a way to punish the US. In recent years, complete halt of mil-to-mil relation no longer happened because not only the US believed that normal mil-to-mil relation should be maintained, but China also realized that a stable and smooth mil-to-mil relation is good for itself.
The Chinese military has developed fast. It's not only a force to defend the homeland, but has grown into a regional and global force. Chinese and American militaries will inevitably have interactions around China, in the Asia Pacific region and elsewhere around the world, which will exert adverse effects such as crisis and friction, as well as positive effects such as cooperation, coordination and win-win results. Therefore, mil-to-mil relation becomes more important in bilateral relations.
In the future, exchange between Chinese and American militaries will continue, and they will have more conflicts and frictions, which, however, will be under good control. Their strategic dialogue may be affected seriously, but a stable relationship is expectable.
The relationship between Chinese and American militaries has three levels. The first is the mechanism of dialogue and mutual visit between high-ranking military officers. The second is regular dialogue. The institutional reform of the Chinese military is basically in place, and the two militaries are more corresponding to each other structurally.
Before the military reform, China adopted the system dominated by the Army, but after that, the four major military services are equal with each other, which is the foundation for their equal dialogue. The reformed Chinese military system has more units corresponding to the American military, and the mechanism of the Theater Command system, joint chiefs of staff and national defense ministry is also more corresponding to the American mechanism.
I hope to see dialogue mechanism between the two countries' joint chiefs of staff, the headquarters and similar organizations and more dialogues in major areas such as maritime security, network and space.
The third level is practical communication between operation troops, such as joint exercise and observation. China will participate in the RIMPAC 2018 upon America's invitation.
Due to the limited strategic mutual trust and demand between the two sides, their military exchanges will be cautiously of a low level, small scale and in nontraditional security areas, and there won't be major breakthroughs in operation cooperation.
Question：Will there be a substantial turning point in the China-US relation when Trump is in power? What will it be, the Korean nuclear issue, the economic and trade issue between China and the US, or the South China Sea or Diaoyu Dao issue?
Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu: I wouldn't use the word "turning point" to describe the China-US relation. This word means the situation suddenly turns bad or intense, but the situation varies greatly in different areas.
Security cooperation will affect the security relation between the two countries, but it involves many aspects. The Korean peninsula issue is rather pressing at the moment. China and the US have common interests as well as divergences there, so they haven't been able to go all out to cooperate in that aspect, but they won't fully confront each other either.
Generally speaking, the main difficulty will lie in the economic and trade area, but that's also the area where negotiation is most possible although complete turnabout won't be easy.
Aggressive response will lead to strategic misjudgment
Question：Forming alliance is an important part of America's defense policy and one of the factors of its national security strategy. Whether it's the rumor that Australia, Japan, India and Vietnam will form a new alliance or America's comprehensive cancelation of its arms embargo to Vietnam, we see that the US is getting closer with Vietnam and farther away from the Philippines. From a geopolitical perspective, how will the changes in America's relation with other countries affect the Asian-Pacific security situation?
Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu: The US has five allies in the Asia Pacific, namely Japan, South Korea, Australia, the Philippines and Thailand. India and Vietnam are not in the list.
The US-Vietnam relation won't develop too fast although Vietnam wishes to improve it. Whether in terms of security balance or economic perspective, we shouldn't put the US-Vietnam relation completely in the context of military relation.
The US develops the relation with India for its large population and fast economic development, and also because India has territorial disputes with China. Its main consideration is to contain China through India, but India won't become its ally because it attaches great importance to national independence, which arises from its history of being oppressed and colonized by western powers.
Australia, Japan, India and Singapore all have their own considerations about China. Their main concern isn't to work against China, but to develop the political, economic and trade relations with it.
The US lifted the arms embargo to Vietnam as a way of containing China, but do we really need to worry given our current economic aggregate and military strength? No matter how many arms the US sells to other countries, it won't change the military comparison with China. The South China Sea conflict is only part of the China-Vietnam relation, and that region will calm down eventually.
Question：Although the US is far more advanced in its nuclear strength, it is still continuously enhancing its strategic nuclear deterrence as a precaution, and will only feel at ease when its equipment is more advanced than China's by at least one generation. What should we do in response?
Maj. Gen. Yao Yunzhu: According to the disarmament treaty between the US and Russia, the US cut 70% of its nuclear weapons in the past 20-plus years, and it has more than 1,700 disposable nuclear warheads at the moment.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US believes that nuclear weapons play a smaller role in national security and military strategy, and it should concentrate on developing conventional weapons and new-tech ones.
The threat that China faces is the new-tech weapons that may be created under America's third "offset strategy". The US is concentrating its resources on subversive technologies in hopes of manufacturing new-generation weapons. Once it succeeds, it will have the weapon superiority by more than one generation (20-30 years). Such revolutionary upgrade is what China should worry about.
When criticizing and dealing with the US, China shouldn't focus on the current weapon platforms and nuclear weapons because that will lead to strategic misjudgment. Weapons of massive destruction are actually rarely used on the battlefield.
China should abandon the passive thought of "building as many aircraft carriers and nuclear weapons as the US" and invest more resources on the possibility of creating new technologies.