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.