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Given the military asymmetry and lack of mutual trust between China and the US, China will only engage in military exchanges with the US on its own terms

By Hu Bo Updated Dec.1

On August 3, Senior Colonel Wu Qian, spokesperson for China’s Ministry of National Defense, confirmed that Lieutenant General Xu Qiling, deputy chief of the Joint Staff of the Central Military Commission, met with representatives of the US military in Fiji. This marks the first reported offline engagement between senior military leaders of China and the US this year.  

Historically, military relations between the two nations were often the weakest link of the China-US relationship. But after bilateral relations nosedived in recent years, the military relationship between the two countries was frequently referred to as the new “ballast stone” or the “stabilizer” in China-US relations. This is because while military ties alone cannot determine how positive these relations can become, it can be a decisive factor in how much these relations deteriorate.  

The assumption by some analysts that the Fiji meeting signals a “restart” to military exchanges is not accurate. Despite the stagnation in high-level talks between the two militaries, continuous communication and interaction at lower working levels between the two militaries has been maintained.  

Besides the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, a direct cause of this prolonged downturn in military relations was the visit by Nancy Pelosi, former Speaker of the US House of Representatives, to Taiwan in August 2022.  

In response to Pelosi’s visit, which disregarded China’s firm opposition and protests, China announced on August 5, 2022 the cancelation of several key military engagements, including scheduled communication between leaders of military theaters from the two countries, the China-US Defense Ministers’ Dialogue and the meetings under China-US Maritime Military Consultation agreement. Moreover, unilateral sanctions imposed by the US on Chinese officials and institutions also created major technical obstacles to exchanges between the two countries in the past few years.  

Since the Biden administration took office, both China and the US explicitly stated their commitment to preventing military competition from spiraling out of control and the need to avoid military conflicts. However, concurrently, the US stepped up its military preparations targeting China, including plans and possible scenarios for conflicts of different scales. This reality underscores the formidable challenge of achieving substantive progress in China-US military exchanges.  

Military Asymmetry
Since the end of the Cold War, the three major barriers for bilateral military exchanges with the US were arms sales to Taiwan, the US’s extensive and intensive reconnaissance activities in China’s adjacent waters and airspace, and discriminatory laws against China. Now, as the bilateral relationship enters a period of “great power competition,” a more prominent strategic or structural barrier is the asymmetrical nature of the military competition between China and the US.  

During the late stages of the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union were roughly on par in terms of conventional and nuclear weapons. By comparison, China-US military relations are and will remain asymmetric in the foreseeable future, with the US maintaining a distinct advantage, especially in terms of weaponry, training and systemic capabilities, despite China’s significant progress in military modernization in recent years. This asymmetry, coupled with a lack of mutual trust, could bring instability to bilateral relations.  

Furthermore, during the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union primarily contested in intermediary regions, such as Eastern Europe and parts of Asia and Africa. Apart from nuclear deterrence, neither side directly threatened the other’s sovereignty or territorial security, nor were they concerned that any parts of their territories or influence were under threat of being “taken away.” In contrast, in the China-US rivalry, competition and confrontation primarily revolve around China’s periphery. This is especially evident in the deep involvement of the US in issues concerning China’s national unity, territorial integrity, sovereignty and maritime interests in the East and South China Seas.  

Unlike during the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union could somewhat accept each other’s power spheres in Europe, today, China and the US have yet to recognize each other’s position and power in East Asian waters, which includes the East China Sea, South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Therefore, the crisis management model that worked technically between the US and the Soviet Union cannot be applied to China-US competition. Historical lessons must be drawn from, but not duplicated.  

From China’s perspective, the fundamental cause of the risk of military conflicts with the US lies in the increasingly rampant military activities of the US in the vicinity of China. Therefore, establishing rules of conduct for China-US military encounters is akin to putting a seat belt on a speeding driver, which will reduce the risk and cost of US military operations around China.  

Unfortunately, the US lacks empathy and fails to consider the situation from China’s viewpoint. It consistently emphasizes its freedom of operation in “international airspace” and “international waters,” framing China’s “excessive reactions” and “expanding maritime presence” as the greatest risks.  

Given these vastly different perceptions, both sides have different priorities in their bilateral dialogues and negotiations. While China underscores both national security and operational safety, the US only focuses on the safety of specific operations. Despite the Biden administration’s repeated rhetoric of constructing a “guardrail” with China in the military domain in recent years, it has largely concentrated on the technical and operational aspects of risk, neglecting the underlying causes of these risks.  

The result is that although both sides want to avoid conflicts and establish crisis management mechanisms, military exchanges between the two sides are often talking at cross purposes, each speaking a different language, a scenario unlikely to change in the near future.  

‘Dialogue is Futile’ 
Thanks to a series of actions and decisions made by the US, China and the US have become each other’s greatest strategic competitors, with both militaries actively preparing for assumed war scenarios against each other. Communication and exchanges are unlikely to change the strategic intentions of either side. Communication and exchanges can help crisis management. However, there are different opinions within both countries on crisis management.  

Even during the period of active military exchanges between China and the US, such as around 2015 to 2016, their achievements and values were questioned within the US. Many critics in the US believe that the series of military crisis management mechanisms and communication exchanges established with China since the end of the Cold War have made no progress and have not solved any specific problems. They believe China lacks sincerity and is only trying to get the US to lower its guard through communication and exchanges. The Chinese military is also perceived by many in the US as a major negative contributor to the bilateral relationship. 
Within China, the perception now is that if the US has already identified China as its greatest strategic competitor and has frequently threatened to go to war with China, what is the point of continuing to engage in communication and exchanges with the US? After years of interaction and communication, China has gradually realized that communication and reasoning can hardly change the US’s intent to contain and suppress China. China also finds it very hard to accept the US’s moves that look to strengthen communication and exchanges while simultaneously flexing its muscles near China’s doorstep.  

At a news conference on August 31, Senior Colonel Wu Qian stressed that dialogue and communication cannot be carried out without principles and bottom lines. “The US expects to harm China’s national interests while carrying out exchanges with the Chinese military as if nothing happened. That is completely delusional,” Wu said.  

As both sides have firmly established each other as their greatest strategic competitors and military challengers, it appears increasingly meaningless for them to engage in communication and clarification. Even at the tactical and operational levels, it is unlikely we will see any major breakthrough in the near future due to inherent differences and obstacles. Communication and exchanges may alleviate some misunderstandings and misjudgments at the operational level, but it is unlikely that a system of crisis management rules and regulations will be developed like that between the US and the Soviet Union in the Cold War.  

Process Over Result 
However, we must be aware that although military exchanges between China and the US over the past three decades have not made any significant progress, they have indirectly facilitated or promoted China-US relations. Without normal military exchanges, China-US relations could have faced even more twists and greater risks. For the international community, the lack of communication between the two militaries would be a cause for concern. Therefore, the current state of China-US military exchanges epitomizes the notion that “the process is more important than the outcome.” As long as both sides can still talk, it signals that China and the US are not yet heading toward intense conflict or war.  

Given the current atmosphere in China-US relations, there is little likelihood of significant progress in military exchanges and crisis management in the short term. Both sides need to be mentally prepared and patient, avoid undue haste and cherish the hard-won resumption of exchanges.  

In this context, the major variables come from the US. The US typically lacks patience in communication and dialogue and often loses interest in continuing communication if it does not achieve the result it demands quickly enough. Moreover, as political polarization has intensified in the US in the past decade, incoming administrations tend to start afresh in terms of communication channels and mechanisms. Similar to other areas of communication, military exchanges between China and the US have been seriously disrupted by US election politics and election cycles. As the US enters another election season, whether the positive momentum in high-level China-US interactions will last remains uncertain.  

Furthermore, there is a risk that military exchanges could become overly politicized. Based on past experience, when military exchanges between the two sides encounter obstacles and setbacks, the US tends to resort to narratives such as “China is unwilling to engage” or “China is reluctant to practice crisis management,” either to shift blame on to or to exert political and diplomatic pressure on China. But this approach only serves to exacerbate Chinese suspicions and resentment toward US intentions.  

It is worth noting that the US has recently frequently hyped incidents of close encounters between the two militaries in the air and at sea, attributing them to “unprofessionalism” on China’s part. This might be a case of the pot calling the kettle black, or a deliberate effort to shape the public discourse. In any case, such actions further contribute to negative perceptions and a hostile political environment for China-US military exchanges. 

Accompanied by Su Shiliang, commander of the South China Sea Fleet of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, General James Conway, the 34th Commandant of the US Marine Corps, attends an anti-terrorism exercise of a brigade of China’s Marine Corps, April 3, 2008 (Photo by VCG)

The Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army conducts a joint naval and air drill around Taiwan, August 19, 2023 (Photo by VCG)