The real determinants of US-China defense engagement
History is also a valuable guide. For over fifteen years, defense policy coordination between Beijing and China has been a constant in relations, and has left the door open to working-level engagement between militaries.
The Taiwan question is the number one red-line in US-China relations, and Washington should implement the consensuses reached by the two heads of state for “healthy and stable development” of ties.
That was the profound message from Chinese State Councilor and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe as he met his American counterpart on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN)’s defense ministers gathering in Cambodia recently. But is it possible for Washington to heed the right lessons at present when its military commits to confrontation in other defense spheres with China? Several developments from recent memory merit close attention.
First, Beijing and Washington’s joint emphasis on stronger crisis management controls is important, as these controls can be dealt strategically without waiting on the U.S. to overcome its cold war mentality. Given the relevance of top defense contacts in both capitals to mitigating military conflict risks in Asia and beyond, Beijing’s stated redlines will be an apt measure of U.S. compliance to world peace and how it delivers. Rhetoric won’t cut it for long. “China bears no responsibility for the situation China-US relations is facing now, as its main cause is the wrong strategic judgement by the US,” said Wei recently.
How Washington addresses that strategic imbalance long-term will also be worth observing.
For a start, Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin’s past intent to “responsibly manage competition” with China has been a positive holdover from the Xi-Biden exchange, but can be built upon by giving responsible behavior concrete shape. In the past, limited clarity failed to plug gaps in U.S.-China military dialogue, following the Biden administration’s push to violate China’s Taiwan redline diplomatically and strategically. A key test now is for U.S. military engagement to identify closely with stated commitments to the one China policy, as well as the three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, without exception. A mismatch between rhetoric and practice was at the heart of heightened tensions in August. Washington would be ill-advised to underestimate the Chinese military’s resolute defense for its national unification, and leave lessons from post-August unheeded.
Well in advance, Wei’s communication of the Taiwan question as “the core of China's core interests” is therefore wholly warranted. Look no further than Austin’s unfounded allegation that it is China – not the U.S. – which has been exercising so-called destabilizing actions toward Taiwan. Therefore, a candid view of China’s “insurmountable” Taiwan redline helps dismiss untruths on sovereign grounds. At the same time, clearly communicated redlines have also illuminated opportunities for strategic convergence between their militaries, including the intent to deal with “contradictions and divergences” properly between both sides.
If there is one lesson in U.S.-China interdependency from recent exchanges, it is that China-U.S. military coordination can’t be put on ice for too long. Washington has been seeking to establish more military hotlines between top U.S. officials and their Chinese counterparts, one of many considerations to jointly manage the risks of future military tensions, miscalculations and protracted instability. Similarly, it is a fact that high-level U.S.-China defense engagement concerns a wide range of regional security issues that matter to both capitals. For these reasons alone, evolving situations in the Ukraine crisis, the South China Sea, and the Korean Peninsula emerge were a point of welcome consideration on ASEAN’s sidelines, and worthy of constant engagement.
But simply stressing the importance of “improving crisis communications” and “substantive dialogue” with Beijing isn’t enough of a credible guarantee from the U.S. side. A strong commitment demands the reversal of underlying contradictions, including on the maritime front, such as the misguided view that “the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate wherever international law allows”. It escapes no one that this was an oblique reference to the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea, both central to Beijing’s sovereign interests. And so, to earnestly implement the Xi-Biden consensus on managing this consequential relationship, both militaries are served with a concrete measure to build strategic trust without ever conceding on core interests.
History is also a valuable guide. For over fifteen years, defense policy coordination between Beijing and China has been a constant in relations, and has left the door open to working-level engagement between militaries. Given the growing role of crisis management and risk reduction in that exercise today, Wei’s meeting with Austin allows two major powers to address the gaps in direct, sustained and equal-footed strategic communication. Especially when U.S. provocations have played a lead role in creating and widening bilateral fissures, and refusing trust.
All told, absence of valuable communication favors no one at all. In fact, it can give way to competing defense perceptions among military officials that hamper strategic convergence hereon. All that runs counter to what Chinese and U.S. defense chiefs saw as a joint priority in Southeast Asia recently: the pursuit for enhanced crisis management is critical to both sides.