Even as the US accuses China of military espionage and worries about Beijing’s more strident posture in the Asia-Pacific region, the ties between the armed forces of the two nations have been getting closer.
Direct contact between China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and some of its potential adversaries has increased dramatically in the past two years.
The first major public sign of the thaw was a joint concert by the US Army band and its Chinese counterpart in 2011 at Washington’s Kennedy Center, where a female US sergeant and a well-known male Chinese singer in a PLA uniform belted out a duet in Italian from the opera La Traviata.
On a more serious note, China hosted US officers in the city of Nanjing this month to discuss countering pirates and the US has invited China to attend the Rim of the Pacific major naval exercises next year.
The increased contact aims to lessen the risk of accidental conflict between nuclear powers as their militaries each learn how the other works and cooperate on uncontroversial issues, such as disaster prevention and disease control.
The amiable spirit in these areas does not mean China and the US are any less wary of each other on thorny subjects such as allegations of Chinese cyberspying, the possibility of an arms race in space and the US military’s “pivot” to Asia with a buildup of its forces in the Pacific.
Some discussions have been remarkably blunt — with Chinese officials sometimes telling their US counterparts that Washington should quit the entire western Pacific and cede influence there to Beijing.
Still, US Air Force Major General Michael Keltz said he has seen a big change.
When he first met with senior Chinese officials in late 2011, the atmosphere was stilted at best. Keltz says they stuck firmly to their prearranged “talking points,” sometimes literally reading from pieces of paper.
“There has been a considerable improvement in both volume and quantity” of meetings and exchanges, said Keltz, head of policy and planning for the US Pacific Command — a role that includes explaining US military thinking to Chinese officials.
Now, Chinese officers are less likely to stall routine conversations with their US opposite numbers by berating them for what they see as anti-China policies, such as US support for Taiwan.
After decades of relative isolation, greater military engagement with the outside world is at the heart of Beijing’s increasingly assertive military strategy.
China’s military budget has grown by a double-digit percentage almost every year for the past decade and it now fields its own aircraft carrier and is testing Stealth fighters. China has become the largest contributor of UN peacekeepers of any of the permanent five Security Council members.
“The Chinese army is now getting much more involved globally,” PLA Major General Liu Chao (劉超), China’s former defense attache to India and now commander of UN peacekeepers in Cyprus, said earlier this year. “The differences [with the rest of the world] will become less, I think.”
For the US, there are clear advantages to learning more about a possible foe, while at the same time drawing China further into the global system.
Increased contact with China’s military gives the US a chance to explain its new strategic focus on Asia, which Beijing fears is a containment strategy to check China’s economic and military rise. The US Pacific Command alone has about 40 exchanges with China planned for this year, including talks on military medicine — particularly preparedness for a pandemic outbreak of a disease — and planning for joint maritime search and rescue operations.