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General Consensus

The US and China have agreed to strengthen their military ties, but their positions on North Korea remain worlds apart

By NewsChina Updated Oct.1

With tensions rising in recent weeks over North Korea’s provocative rhetoric and missile tests, the top Pentagon general Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spent three days in China in a mid-August visit watched closely by observers.  

The highest-ranking Pentagon official to visit China since US President Donald Trump took office, Dunford met with his counterpart Fang Fenghui, chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Joint Staff Department, as well as Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC), China’s top military body. 

In Beijing, both nations agreed to establish a new military communication mechanism between their joint staffs. Talks to set up the Joint Staff Dialogue Mechanism will begin in Washington in November.  

Both sides demonstrated a strong will to maintain good military relations. Dunford said that reducing the potential for miscalculation was a minimum standard for bilateral military ties and that the two sides should try to find more areas of cooperation, while Fan Changlong called on both militaries to inject positive energy into China-US relations.  

North Korea’s Place 

It’s no surprise that the North Korea crisis was a primary focus of Dunford’s trip, given the escalation of warnings and threats between Washington and Pyongyang in recent months. Days before Dunford’s trip, North Korea threatened to fire ballistic missiles into the vicinity of Guam, which houses the major US naval and air force assets in the Pacific. US President Donald Trump warned in response that such provocations would be met with “fire and fury.”  

The tension has also strained the US-China relationship as Washington reiterated its criticism of Beijing for failing to rein in Pyongyang. As the risk of military clashes on the Korean Peninsula rises, Dunford’s trip to China, part of a broader tour that included South Korea and Japan, was widely seen as an attempt to manage the relationship between Washington and Beijing over North Korea.  

Few believe it’s a coincidence that on the very day Dunford embarked on his trip to China, Beijing announced new bans on the importation of North Korean iron ore, iron, lead, coal and seafood, as part of a new United Nations sanctions package against Pyongyang. 

After he met Fan, Dunford flew from Beijing to Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province which shares a border with North Korea. There he visited the headquarters of the PLA’s Northern Theater Command (NTC), one of five theater commands the PLA has established as a function of military reforms undertaken by Xi Jinping as head of the Central Military Commission. Accompanied by NTC commander Song Puxuan, Dunford observed PLA military exercises at a camp some 200 kilometers from the North Korean border.  

This is unusual. Dunford is believed to be the first top US military official to have observed a military drill in the region, and the symbolism has not been lost on analysts. Citing one military expert, a report in The Wall Street Journal suggested Dunford’s visit to the region was a stern warning to the North not to set a foot wrong. 

The US account of Dunford’s trip also focuses on the North Korea issue. According to the official handout of the meeting between Dunford and his Chinese counterpart Fang Fenghui, for example, the two sides talked about almost nothing but the North Korea crisis. Dunford repeated Washington’s long-time call for China to increase pressure on Pyongyang, and reiterated the US resolve to “use the full range of military capabilities” if peaceful options fail.  

Dunford repeated the rhetoric as he wrapped up his three-day visit to China on August 17. According to the account of the US Department of Defense, he warned that the US was “working toward a peaceful solution,” but “if the president comes to us with a decision to use military force, we will provide him options.” 

Missing Narrative 

Chinese officials focused on a different aspect of Dunford’s visit, what they called the “overall picture” of the bilateral relationship, while downplaying its correlation with the North Korea crisis. In the official account of the meeting between Dunford and President Xi released by China’s defense ministry, for example, there was no mention of North Korea. Instead, Xi Jinping was quoted as stressing the importance of the bilateral relationship’s “general direction” which he said “not only concerns the fundamental interests of the two nations and their people, but also profoundly affects the overall international strategic situation.” 

“China and the United States shoulder an important responsibility to safeguard world peace and stability and to promote global development and prosperity,” his statement said.  

In an interview with NewsChina, Zhou Bo, director of the Security Center at the Office for International Military Cooperation of the Ministry of National Defense, also played down the correlation between Dunford’s visit and the North Korea crisis. Zhou characterized Dunford’s visit as the result of the first round of the US-China Diplomatic and Security Dialogue held in June, and said the visit was initially scheduled in the same month but was postponed by the US. Bo also dismissed the symbolism attributed to Dunford’s presence so close to the North Korean border, saying the military drill was a gesture of “goodwill” from the Chinese side.  

Zhou also interpreted the agreement on cooperation from a historical perspective and refused to link it to North Korea. He stressed that earlier in 2014 and 2015, the two militaries reached agreements on a code of conduct for safe maritime encounters between surface vessels and air-to-air encounters. Also in 2015, the two militaries signed an agreement to establish the US-China Army-to-Army Dialogue Mechanism, and set up a military hotline later that year. 

Zhou said the joint staff mechanism was a further step that went beyond individual branches of the two militaries. Zhou said that under the mechanism, the two sides could follow through on an agreement reached in 2014 to notify each other in advance of major military activities.  

But Zhou admitted that China and the US disagree on exactly what constitutes a “major military activity.” “For China, the focus is on the US’s military activities around China, but the US’s focus is on China’s military developments, such as its space programs and nuclear arsenal development, with particular attention on establishing a similar mechanism to that established between China and Russia in 2009 to notify each other of impending ballistic missile launches,” Zhou told NewsChina. 

‘Candid and Professional’ 

Washington and Beijing’s different takes on Dunford’s visit may reflect the fact that despite consensus on the need to enhance military ties, the two countries remain far apart on a variety of issues including that of North Korea.  

Just a week before Dunford’s visit, a US destroyer sailed near an island controlled by China in the South China Sea as part of a freedom of navigation operation, which Beijing called “provocation.” Also in early August, the US released a joint statement with Japan and Australia calling on Beijing to endorse a legally-binding code of conduct over the South China Sea, seen as an effort to disrupt ongoing Chinese efforts to reach a code of conduct agreement with ASEAN countries.  

Other sources of friction are the US plan to deploy a missile-defense system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in South Korea and its plans to enhance ties with Taiwan. More recently, the possibility of a future trade war increased when both countries launched anti-dumping probes against each other’s products. 

 Against this backdrop, Dunford commenced his meeting with Fan Changlong by stressing the importance of “candid and professional communication” between their militaries “because both nations have tough issues where we do not share the same perspective.”  

As it turned out, Fan was no less candid than Dunford regarding the disputes between their respective nations. According to the account released by China’s defense ministry, Fan told Dunford that “the US’s wrongful actions such as meddling in Taiwan, establishing THAAD around China, spying closely on Chinese sea and air territories, and the constant activity of US planes and ships in the South China Sea, have had a negative effect on mutual trust and military-to-military ties.”  

Regarding the North Korea crisis, Fan reiterated that China “resolutely believes that dialogue is the only effective measure” and “military action cannot be an option.” “Related parties should remain restrained, and avoid actions or words that can intensify the situation,” he added.  

Unfortunately, in defiance of both Beijing and Washington, Pyongyang not only resumed its missile launches, but conducted its sixth nuclear test on September 2, triggering a new round of the crisis.  

In response, China voiced its strong condemnation and backed a UN Sanction against Pyongyang, which analysts estimated will cut North Korean exports by 90 percent. But as the sanction does not include an oil embargo, consistently sought by Washington, the disagreement between Beijing and Washington persists. While US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said North Korea is “begging for war,” China’s Ambassador to the UN Liu Jieyi reiterated Beijing’s call to “resume negotiations.”  

With less and less room for ambiguity, the future of the US-China military relationship, and the overall bilateral relationship, will be significantly tested as the North Korea crisis further evolves.