The world’s largest international maritime exercise, the 2014 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercise, is taking place from June 26 to August 1, 2014. Twenty-three countries are participating, including the United States, Japan, Australia, and, for the first time, China.

In this Q&A, Chen Qi offers his take on the significance of the exercise and what it means for the region. He explains that the China-U.S. military relationship is marked by distrust, and the exercise could either worsen or improve tensions, depending on how open the two sides are to cooperation.

How would you describe the current state of the China-U.S. military relationship?

The current relationship is marked by mutual distrust and tensions that break out from time to time.

China is seeking to build a new model of major power relationships with the United States. The essence of the new relationship is that the rising power and the established power seek cooperation to prevent and manage large-scale conflict.

Chen Qi
Chen Qi is an expert on U.S.-China relations, global governance, and China’s foreign policy. Chen runs the center’s U.S.-China Track II dialogue.
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As Washington and Beijing promote the effort, scholars, officials, and members of the armed forces in both countries believe that the weakest part is their military relationship. Military officials, experts, and even the public agree that there is a deep rift between the two countries in this area. Mutual distrust and doubt over military matters is far more severe than any economic conflict or political confrontation that arises. Political confrontation, for instance, is the result of the two countries’ ideological differences, and both sides are carefully dealing with their differences despite a war of words from time to time. The military relationship is different.

Tension, confrontation, and distrust over military issues escalated after the September 11, 2001, attack in the United States, but the two sides have made a number of efforts since 2010 to ease tensions. Chinese President Xi Jinping met with U.S. President Barack Obama at the Sunnylands estate in California in June 2013 to prevent the China-U.S. relationship, especially the military relationship, from deteriorating. It was also during those talks that China decided to accept the U.S. invitation to participate in the 2014 RIMPAC exercise. There have been several rounds of visits by top military officials, including defense ministers. For example, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel visited China’s naval base near Qingdao in April 2014.

Although they vow at press conferences to promote cooperation, officials from China and the United States have made their conflicts plain when it comes to maritime security as well as control of certain islands. The fact that top officials have spoken of such conflicts indicates that they have long been aware of China-U.S. distrust and friction and they no longer want to conceal it out of international and domestic pressure.

Military exchanges and talks have not stopped distrust from mounting. And the tensions are not limited to the military level. Extensive and growing differences exist between the two countries. And because the overall strategic relationship suffers, it is hard for the military relationship to improve significantly.

One of the latest challenges to military exchanges and cooperation is the U.S. indictment of five Chinese military officers on charges of stealing commercial secrets. The action shows the U.S. decisionmakers’ growing dissatisfaction with China’s rise and their lack of confidence that the two countries’ strategic relationship will improve. It might also be the result of the influence that U.S. business interests and politicians have on the United States’ strategic choices. In the past, Washington has made allegations without making public its sources of intelligence and not necessarily based on solid evidence. Examples include the Yinhe incident in which a search of a China-based container ship for chemical weapons materials headed for Iran came up empty-handed; the indictment and harsh treatment of Wen Ho Lee for the alleged theft of classified nuclear-related U.S. documents; and the Cox Committee report, which found that China stole nuclear weapons design information from the United States. These steps hurt the bilateral relationship and make the two countries distrust each other more.

Other recent tensions have stemmed from the conflict with Russia in Ukraine and the U.S. rebalancing toward Asia. In the wake of Russia’s annexation of Crimea, China was warned against following Moscow’s example. That has made China uncomfortable and resulted in provocative statements from officials in both countries. And for China, Washington’s consolidation of its network of allies, increased military presence in the Asia-Pacific, participation in bilateral military exercises, and efforts to strengthen its reconnaissance along China’s coastline are not constructive and friendly undertakings. Meanwhile, China and Russia are getting closer militarily and strategically, escalating the risk of confrontation between powers.

Obama’s comments on the China-U.S. relationship have mainly been aimed at warning China while reassuring U.S. allies. For example, Obama said that article 5 of the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security is applicable to “all territories under Japan’s administration,” including the Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkaku Islands in Japan). China’s decisionmakers and Chinese people are surely dissatisfied with his words. Meanwhile, when it comes to the issue with the Philippines over the Spratly Islands in the South China Sea, senior U.S. officials have blamed tensions on Chinese provocation.

Such moves have exacerbated the atmosphere of confrontation in East Asia. China and the United States have not directly been hostile to each other, but their suspicion of each other, especially in the past year, is worrying.

There have been some positive, though marginal, examples of cooperation. China, the United States, and Australia joined together to search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 in an example of China-U.S. military cooperation on nontraditional issues. Another example is the Western Pacific Naval Symposium that was held in Qingdao. Over twenty countries, including the United States, took part in the forum, which also included military exercises. China engaged in dialogue with other countries at the forum, particularly the United States.

But both countries must work hard and be open to cooperation if real progress is to be made.

What is the purpose of the RIMPAC naval exercise hosted by the United States?

The United States sees many benefits in hosting the exercise. My view is that the ultimate purpose of the United States is to establish its unchallenged status in the Asia-Pacific region and to demonstrate its military strength.

The exercise also appears to be designed to show support to U.S. allies and to ensure regional security in the long run by strengthening responses to nontraditional threats. For example, including items such as maritime rescue and responses to terrorism will bolster regional security because conducting exercises in these areas will ensure that if crises actually arose, countries that participated in the exercise would be able to respond quickly.

The most important purpose of the exercise appears to many in China to be to warn China not to change the status quo by demonstrating that Washington has the capability to mobilize its allies to take part in the exercise. Some headlines in China paint this as the United States flexing its muscles, sending the message that it is much more powerful than China. Washington appears to be telling China that the United States remains the leader in the region to deter China from changing the status quo.

Why did the United States extend an invitation to China to RIMPAC 2014? What led Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi to accept?

For both Washington and Beijing, China’s participation is more significant symbolically than practically. It will not result in much progress in China-U.S. military cooperation. But the symbolic meaning is still quite important because it shows both sides are willing to try to reduce tensions and control their differences.

For the United States, it is a welcome sign that China is willing to join the U.S.-hosted exercise. Cooperation is certainly much better than competition. Washington also sees the exercise, in which most participants are its allies, as an opportunity to show its leadership and coordination in the region.

China hopes to achieve the goal of enhancing mutual trust with the United States by joining the 2014 RIMPAC exercise. This demonstrates that China is willing to acknowledge a basic fact that the United States is taking the initiative in the region. China’s participation in a military exercise initiated or led by Washington shows that it will not expel the United States from the region and that it acknowledges the leading role the United States plays in the region. It would be bad for China to demonstrate that it is unwilling to join, and it would be worse if China showed that it would like to compete with the United States.

What exercises will China participate in at RIMPAC? What does China hope to achieve?

It is unlikely that China’s participation will be all that significant. That is why China’s participation in the exercise is more of a symbolic gesture.

As far as I know, Chinese observers are banned from most portions of the exercise. Russian observers were banned from most items, too, when Russia took part in 2012 (Russia is not taking part in the exercise this year). China might be allowed to observe something less sensitive, but that depends on how cautious both sides are being.

For the sake of military transparency and trust, the United States should allow Chinese observers or military representatives to see most parts of the exercise. Washington should be more open and more confident and involve China more. 
The United States has repeatedly asked China to increase its military transparency. Likewise, the United States should also make its capabilities more transparent. Exercises like RIMPAC might help China and the United States further develop their high-level working relationship if the two sides open themselves up more to one another.

That will be difficult because both sides are sure to be cautious of each other. The United States fears China will gain too much knowledge, and China worries its advanced technology will be exposed.

I hope the two countries can truly cooperate. As they gain a better understanding of each other, their trust might grow, but it is hard to say at this point if that is in the cards.

Do you think China’s participation in RIMPAC can help ease tensions or build trust between China and other Asian nations participating in the exericise? Do you expect progress to be made on improving China-U.S. military-to-military relations as a result of the exercises?

The exercises could either worsen or improve tensions.

The U.S. demonstration of its military strength and its support of its allies could enhance its allies’ confidence that the United States will help if they are in trouble. That could in turn make them feel that they have nothing to fear, and they could take provocative steps.

Or, after China’s participation in the exercise, Washington’s allies might feel that the United States is taking steps to reduce conflict in the region and that all countries, including China, are U.S. allies. That would improve China’s relationship with those countries.

It seems more likely that tensions will worsen—that the U.S. support for its allies will boost their confidence and they will become more irrational.

Of course, neither Xi nor Obama expects that the China-U.S. military relationship will spiral out of control. China’s top leadership is sensible and will not have a military showdown with the United States. It is true that there is tension between the two countries, but neither side expects uncontrollable escalation. That is the basis for the two countries’ acceptance of the new model for the China-U.S. relationship.

China’s problem with the United States is structural. In other words, Washington fears China’s rise will affect its hegemony, but that will not necessarily result in a military conflict. The major problem is their disagreement over allies in Asia rather than over the security of their territory.

What turns the structural problem into the catalyst for real conflict is China’s economic and military confrontation with U.S. allies. For instance, although the United States said it will not take sides in the conflict over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, it is supporting Japanese administration of the islands (and so whoever challenges Japanese administration is challenging the United States itself). That step is turning a conflict between China and a third country into a conflict between China and the United States.

It is also evident that both U.S. bilateral military exercises and countries’ responses to them are undermining regional stability. Since 2010, both the number and the scale of bilateral military exercises centering on the United States (such as the U.S.-Australia, the U.S.-Japan, and the U.S.–South Korea exercises) have increased. They are to a large extent believed to target potential challengers, like China or North Korea. Many Asia-Pacific countries feel insecure, and China and Russia have increased military exercises in response.

To further promote the region’s healthy development, the United States should give less priority to bilateralism in its exercises, suppress its desire to rein in some states, and strive to make exercises open to all Asian countries. Those countries should establish a new concept of security—open, comprehensive, and sustainable security rather than a zero-sum approach. Xi proposed such an approach to regional security issues at the 2014 Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA). The introduction of the concept into the RIMPAC exercise would help ensure long-lasting security in Asia. The United States and China should also promote exchanges at different levels in the military and address public distrust of each other.

Personally, I hope cooperative efforts like the RIMPAC exercise will help countries avoid confrontation and increase mutual trust, thus making the region’s outlook more stable and reducing tension between China and U.S. allies.

Will China lead military initiatives like RIMPAC in the future?

China has already led multilateral initiatives, such as CICA and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, but they are not military undertakings. As China narrows the capabilities gap with the United States and increases its number of partners, it is conceivable that it might initiate military exercises in the region.

Even if it does, I don’t think China will seek military hegemony or strive to become a global leader like the United States. Some say China is surpassing the United States economically, but China has said it does not want to be the global leader.

Whether Beijing will seek hegemony in the future depends on its leaders. I believe that China’s new leaders have the ambition to rejuvenate the nation and shoulder responsibility worldwide. But desiring the honor is not enough; progress will require the courage to take on responsibility.

What are the main takeaways for China and the United States?

China’s participation in the RIMPAC exercise reflects the basic consensus that leaders from the two countries have reached to enhance military exchanges as part of trying to build a new major power relationship. That is an important, symbolic move, but it requires both countries to work harder and to open their doors wider to each other.

Strategically speaking, it is becoming important for the United States to manage its allies in Asia to prevent them from seeking too much U.S. support and taking provocative steps. That will become a fundamental source of tension between Beijing and Washington. If allies are well managed, the China-U.S. military relationship might improve.

But my primary concern is that the United States is playing a crucial role in the region’s security while countries in the region become more economically dependent on China. In the past twenty years, China has become the largest trade partner of almost all Asian countries, which gives it significant influence in the region. But China and those U.S. allies have tensions over security, and the United States is somewhat protective of the region, saying that its prosperity and stability requires U.S. military support.

This situation will not be easy to address. The region is quite safe on its own when the United States prioritizes the Middle East, for example, but sensitive disputes emerge when the United States makes Asia a strategic priority.

This article was published as part of the Window into China series