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WASHINGTON — Economic ties between the US and China may discourage open conflict between the two Pacific powerhouses, but the best way to avoid a future war in the region is by increasing military-to-military relationships, a quartet of former secretaries of defense said last week.

Speaking at a Jan. 11 event hosted by the National Committee on US China Relations, former Secretaries Harold Brown (1977-1981), William Perry (1994-1997), William Cohen (1997-2001) and Chuck Hagel (2013-2015) agreed that the US needs to bolster the military exchanges of officers and information as a way to improve cultural understanding between the two nations.

All four men unequivocally support hosting officers from the People’s Liberation Army at DoD centers of learning, such as West Point. Cohen also encouraged the US to invite the Chinese to join more military exercises in the Pacific region, something that has happened occasionally in the past.

The men also agreed that using the military commanders in the Pacific to lead the building of those relationships is key.

“I would say as someone who has walked on both sides of the street, the political side and the administration side, politicians have to listen more to our military,” Hagel said. “And I don’t mean changing the Constitution. I mean listen to our military. They get it better than most politicians on things like this. And some of the finest statesmen I’ve ever met in my life are in military uniform.”

Those comments were particularly interesting in light of reported tensions between the White House and the Pentagon during his tenure.

The goal of increased relationships is to foster a better understanding between two cultures that do not always interpret the actions of the other correctly. The greatest risk in the relationship, Cohen said, is that the US takes an action and the Chinese – or a US ally in the region – misinterprets it.

“If we say it with ambiguity we are confusing our own allies and we are angering the Chinese, so we have to be very clear on what exactly our position is,” Cohen said.

The collection of former secretaries was interesting not just for their accumulated experience, but for how it told the story of US-China relations. Brown noted how little time was spent worrying about China during his tenure, a situation which completely changed by the time Hagel became secretary and was put in charge of the “rebalance” to the Pacific.

Hagel also downplayed concerns over China’s production of a second aircraft carrier, saying it was “particularly important” for them as a symbolic effort but does not represent a significant tactical upgrade for their forces.

The economic ties between the US and China provide another opportunity for understanding, and provide a disincentive for military conflict between the two sides, with Hagel noting that the global economy means “we’re all now 7 billion global citizens.”

“We have to look at trade and investment as a hopefully stabilizing force in this relationship,” Cohen said, before calling the US business community “our ambassadors” to China, noting that “jobs are at stake, there and here.”

However, China’s recent economic struggles could lead to upheaval of the status quo, warned Brown.

“I worry that instead of making them rethink” their strategy, Brown said, economic issues “may actually increase their sense of grievance. That’s a big worry.”

Another potential flashpoint is Taiwan, with the US recently clearing a major new arms package for the nation which China continues to claim as its rightful territory.

The weapons package would not “really affect the outcome” of any Chinese attempt to retake Taiwan, Brown said, but instead represents “a signal to the PRC that they can’t count on the US being passive if there is an attempt … to take over Taiwan by force.”

And, Cohen noted, the US commitment to Taiwan is a strong symbol to other nations in the region about the US willingness to stand as an ally.

“Other allies are watching how the United States is handling this. Because if we have a commitment to Taiwan and fail to take measures that will reinforce that, then other countries can start to doubt” Washington’s commitment to them, he said.

Perry, who ordered aircraft carriers to visit Taiwan during his tenure, believes that just as the US and China’s economic ties give incentive for peace, so to do the ties between China and Taiwan.

“Now I would say that Taiwan and China have MAED – Mutually Assured Economic Destruction – because if anything happens and provokes a conflict between those two now, what will be destroyed is billions and billions of dollars in economic value,” Perry said. “So it’s a very, very huge deterrent, much more important than sending carrier battle groups to Taiwan.”

The panel closed with a hypothetical asking all four men what their one-minute advice would be to the next president on how to deal with China.

Perry warned that the relationship is both more difficult and more important than a new president realizes. Brown agreed that in the long run, “this is the most important bilateral relationship,” and urged the next president to “take it easy. Don’t take big steps without thinking it through much more than most of your predecessors have most of the time.”

Cohen, a Republican politician tapped by a Democratic president to lead the Pentagon, warned that what is said on the campaign trail to get elected needs to be ignored when the realities of the office take over.

“All presidential candidates don’t make promises – [and] if you do, make sure you break them, because you have to.”

Hagel, the most recent secretary, was succinct: “listen.”

Email: amehta@defensenews.com

Twitter: @AaronMehta

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