Long regarded as the weakest spot in the bilateral relationship, US-China military-to-military relations have progressed considerably in recent years.
The two militaries have engaged in joint exercises of humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and cooperated in counter-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. More recently, the Chinese Navy has for the first time sent a fleet to participate in the US-led Rim of the Pacific multilateral naval exercise.
However, following the US-China spat over the latter's announcement of the establishment of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea in November 2013, the two militaries also encountered a series of frictions. In addition, the US indictment of five Chinese soldiers accused of engaging in "commercial cyber-espionage" on US private companies in May and the Chinese interception of a US spy plane near China's coastline in August has increased tension.
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Such frictions are indicative of the deepening US-China strategic distrust, and have caused many analysts to be increasingly pessimistic of the prospects for improving US-China relations.
Chinese President Xi Jinping hosted US President Barack Obama for a summit in Beijing Nov. 11-12, following the conclusion of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit. The summit surprised many observers by concluding a wide range of important agreements covering climate change, information technology exports, as well as military-to-military relations.
The two military agreements — one on a notification of major military activities and another on a memorandum of understanding of rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters — are regarded as largely symbolic by some analysts. Yet they are nevertheless significant milestones in confidence-building measures and mutual military trust, signifying both sides' determination to promote what Xi calls a new model of military relationship.
The two presidents must arrest and reverse the emergence and deepening of a "security dilemma" — a situation in which one state's efforts to bolster its own security cause others to feel less secure — that risks turning one of the world's most important bilateral relationships into a strategic rivalry.
The militaries should build understanding and trust, and promote pragmatic military cooperation in areas such as UN peacekeeping operations (UNPKOs) and counterterrorism. Specifically, the two sides should build on their successful experiences in counterpiracy operations in the Gulf of Aden and explore the possibility of expanding their cooperation into other regions.
The two sides can begin with exchanges of their respective lessons and experiences of UNPKOs, and gradually move to explore the possibility of joint training programs. The two sides can begin intelligence sharing, followed by discussion of possible joint counterterrorism exercises.
As Chinese military capabilities rise, Beijing and Washington will have to negotiate the boundary of their power in the Asia-Pacific. How to build a new model of military relationship in the spirit of avoiding conflict and confrontation and promoting mutually beneficial cooperation will be a challenge facing military and political leaders on both sides of the Pacific.
2015 will be the year when the two militaries should sustain momentum resulting from the summit in Beijing, further substantiate pragmatic cooperation and deepen understanding and trust, and lay the foundation for a positive military relationship in the years to come.