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Jul 8, 2016 | 09:16 GMT

7 mins read

As Frictions Rise, China and U.S. Cultivate Deeper Naval Ties

Despite Diplomatic Tension, the U.S. and China Deepen Military Ties
(DYLAN MCCORD/U.S. Navy)
Forecast Highlights

  • Though tension is rising in the South China Sea, it will not lead to a break in military ties between the United States and China.
  • Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) 2016 will serve as a crucial venue for the U.S. and Chinese navies to practice common operational procedures and build relationships among personnel.
  • China's military reform will somewhat disrupt the institutionalized channels of communication between the two as the organizational structure of the People's Liberation Army changes.

The Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) biennial naval exercise is in full swing, and this year's has already proved to be an occasion of many firsts. Not only is RIMPAC 2016 the largest of its kind to date, but the navies of Denmark, Italy and Germany — none traditionally considered a Pacific power — are also making initial appearances in the exercise. Moreover, for the first time in RIMPAC's history, a non-American ship (in this case, a Singaporean frigate) led the multinational group comprising vessels from the United States, Japan, Indonesia and India from the Western Pacific to Hawaii, the site of the exercises. The move was a subtle message from Washington that it wants its Asian partners to take the lead in securing the region.

Yet despite these notable firsts, it is China's second showing at the exercise that is attracting the most attention. The relationship between Beijing and Washington has come under increasing strain in recent months amid Chinese displays of force and U.S. naval activity near Beijing's claims in the South China Sea. As tension between the two countries continues to mount, both will search for ways to avoid crises while managing those that do arise. Joint exercises such as RIMPAC 2016 may be just the answer they are looking for. 

Lasting Imperatives Outweigh Temporary Friction

During the past few months, Beijing has heatedly opposed the U.S. role in the South China Sea, and in April it symbolically snubbed Washington by denying the USS John C. Stennis a visit to Hong Kong. In the lead-up to the June 3-5 Shangri-La Dialogue, one of Asia's biggest security summits, it was clear that the relationship between the two countries was on the rocks. Though Chinese state media outlets enthusiastically reported on meetings between lead Chinese delegate Adm. Sun Jianguo and dignitaries from at least eight other countries, they made no mention of talks between him and U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter or U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris.

In fact, it was far from certain whether China would even be asked to attend RIMPAC 2016. In response to deteriorating ties, members of Congress and many U.S. think tanks pressured President Barack Obama to withdraw Beijing's invitation. But ultimately, Obama chose to prioritize maintaining close military ties with China, and Carter eventually announced that two U.S. Navy ships would sail from Guam alongside five Chinese warships on their way to the RIMPAC exercise.

Despite the diplomatic jabs the two countries have traded, they appear to have reached an understanding of sorts. Although each has immutable strategic goals that conflict with the other's, China and the United States agree that they need to manage their differences as well as they can to avoid a complete breakdown in ties — a development that, for two nuclear powers, would be disastrous. This mutual arrangement has been made possible in part by Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has shown greater receptiveness than his predecessor, Hu Jintao, to the idea of normalizing his country's military relationship with the United States. His positive approach was made clear in December 2015, when Washington's approval of a $1.83 billion arms sale to Taiwan provoked a pro forma response from Xi's administration, rather than the cutoff in military cooperation that was customary under Hu.

Indeed, the past year marked many milestones in confidence building between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. In September 2015, Washington and Beijing signed two annexes to a 2014 memorandum of understanding on safe conduct in air and maritime encounters, one of which set procedures for the use of a defense telephone link between U.S. and Chinese officials. A month later, Chinese Adm. Wu Shengli used the hotline to contact U.S. Adm. John Richardson three days after the USS Lassen conducted a freedom of navigation operation within 12 nautical miles of the Spratly Islands' Subi Reef, which Beijing claims. Though the incident did not demonstrate the hotline's real-time use during a crisis, it did show China's initiative in using the new tools available to communicate with the United States.

This year's RIMPAC exercise will smooth their interactions even more. It took the U.S. and Chinese naval ships several days to reach Hawaii from Guam, affording plenty of opportunities to practice joint maneuvering drills and implement the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea. The code, a set of protocols signed in 2014 that governs the communications and conduct of naval ships to minimize the risk of accidents, is particularly important as U.S. and Chinese vessels encounter one another more frequently in the South China Sea. At the exercise itself, which began on June 30 and will last until Aug. 4, the U.S. and Chinese navies will participate in several drills on anti-piracy, gunnery, and search and rescue operations. Sailors and officers will also have the chance to work with one another and with their foreign peers in structured and unstructured activities onshore. Though such interaction is undoubtedly meant to generate positive publicity, it also speaks to one of RIMPAC's lesser-known functions: promoting personal relationships between sailors and officers of different navies that will endure as they move up through the ranks.

Putting It Into Practice

The primary value of joint exercises — familiarizing working-level military officials with one another and with the protocols that streamline communication — makes military interactions more predictable. This will be crucial in the coming years as the United States and China enter periods of political transition. The United States, for its part, is preparing to hold its presidential election, while China is readying itself for the 19th Communist Party Congress in 2017, when many senior military leaders are likely to be replaced. The cultivation of stable ties between the militaries' lower ranks will ensure that relations continue to be well regulated in the face of what could be a politically delicate time.

That said, military-to-military cooperation has its limits; it is a means of managing conflict, not eliminating it. Although Xi's administration has pursued closer military ties with Washington, that has not resolved disputes between China and the United States. If anything, those feuds have intensified even as the countries' military bonds have strengthened. Furthermore, the People's Liberation Army is currently undergoing one of the biggest restructurings in its history, and many of its organizational and command-and-control hierarchies remain unclear, even to Chinese personnel. The reform will likely impede the use of established channels of communication over the next five years or so as Beijing finishes revamping its military.

The United States and China's new conflict management mechanisms will probably be put to the test sooner than later. The U.N. Permanent Court of Arbitration is expected to rule on the Philippines' case against China's maritime claims on July 12, as RIMPAC completes its second week, and the court's decision will almost certainly ratchet up tensions between China and the United States. But Beijing and Washington are aware of how valuable close military cooperation can be for mitigating risk, and both will be reluctant to jeopardize it.

Lead Analyst: Thomas Vien

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