By Chris Johnson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Chris Johnson is Freeman Chair in China studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. The views expressed are the author’s own.
Defense relations between the United States and China have been broken for too long, and a recent spike in regional tensions means the problem can no longer be neglected. Mounting dustups over sovereignty disputes in the East and South China Seas and distracted or weak political leaderships in many of the competing capitals are substantially raising the likelihood of an accidental clash, and U.S. defense commitments make it certain Washington would be drawn in. Yet effective tools are decidedly lacking for properly managing, to say nothing of preventing, such a conflict with China.
U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta’s visit to Beijing this week is a welcome contribution to sustaining high-level contact that has been off more than on. But such visits have not translated into sustainable cooperation at the working-level. In fact, the primary vehicle for such discussions, the Defense Consultative Talks, has mostly devolved into a mutual airing of irreconcilable grievances. Emblematic of the lack of substance in the relationship, a bilateral defense hotline established in 2008 has only been used a handful of times, and never to test procedures in a simulated crisis.
So why is the relationship so dysfunctional? On the Chinese side, there needs to be more meaningful buy-in at the top. After the last major disruption in 2010, President Hu Jintao repeatedly assured President Barack Obama that he was committed to restarting defense ties. However, it took the embarrassment of a seemingly uncoordinated test flight of China’s J-20 stealth fighter during then Defense Secretary Robert Gates' January 2011 visit before Hu finally forced the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to fully reengage. Chinese leaders are also quick to jettison defense contacts whenever bilateral frictions rise – such as after U.S. defense sales to Taiwan – suggesting they see military-to-military ties as the most readily expendable component of the overall bilateral relationship.
But the main impediment in Beijing may be the PLA. Earlier generations of the high command sought constructive ties with their U.S. counterparts. Many developed respect for U.S. combat power fighting in Korea and Vietnam, while others worked closely with the Pentagon in the 1980s against a common Soviet threat. Younger officers, by contrast, are more accustomed to the absence of ties and are less sanguine about the relationship’s intrinsic value as Chinese military prowess grows.
Moreover, as China's political system becomes more pluralistic, the military is a more autonomous actor. Mao’s dictum that “the party controls the gun” remains in force, but gone are the days when U.S. officials could be certain that making their case solely to the top civilian leadership would yield the desired outcome. The PLA has boosted its say in Chinese foreign and security policy making by capitalizing on its near monopoly on defense expertise and its unique status as the ultimate guarantor of continued party rule. There simply is no going around the senior uniformed leadership for cooperation on security matters.
The Obama administration has smartly adapted to this challenge. It fought for and won senior PLA participation in the Strategic Security Dialogue talks that parallel the Strategic and Economic Dialogue and has set an example by including senior defense officials on the U.S. teams conducting other important bilateral consultations with the Chinese. If anything, the administration could be faulted early in its tenure for being too solicitous of engagement given clear PLA disinterest.
No, the chief impediment to improved ties for the United States is the strict limits imposed by Congress on the types of military engagement the U.S. military can have with the PLA. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2000 prohibits the Defense Department from any military exchanges or contact with China that “would create a national security risk.” Such vague language effectively prohibits all but the most mundane interactions and is one reason why the DCT and similar consultations lack substance. The PLA regularly cites the restrictions as one of “three obstacles” preventing improved ties, the other two being U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and air and sea reconnaissance missions close to China’s coastline. Putting aside PLA pique, the legislation is unhelpful because it severely limits the Pentagon’s toolkit for shaping the future direction and behavior of the PLA. Maintaining prudent limits on the relationship is important, but a meaningful review with an eye toward unshackling the Defense Department would be a useful contribution.
Failure to address these problems in bilateral defense ties is a primary contributor to rising strategic suspicion between Beijing and Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Beijing earlier this month that the United States and China are seeking “a new answer to the question of what happens when an established power and a rising power meet.” Absent genuine improvement in the relations between the two countries’ militaries, however, such an answer is unlikely to be found.