Home / China / Top Stories

The hidden reefs in China-US relations

By Chen Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2013-08-23 11:35

The hidden reefs in China-US relations

US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and an honor guard welcome China's Minister of National Defense Chang Wanquan at the Pentagon in Washington. Chenbei Sun / China Daily

While China and the US seek to elevate their military ties, some old stumbling blocks still stand in the way and new issues keep rising, Chen Weihua reports from Washington.

When Chinese Defense Minister Chang Wanquan was greeted with a smile and a warm handshake from his US counterpart, Chuck Hagel, along with an honor guard and marching band outside the Pentagon entrance facing the Washington Monument across the Potomac River, the mood did not mirror the rivalry between the two militaries that has often appeared in the press. Rather, it felt more like a welcome of a friendly ally.

Their talk on Monday, which was originally scheduled for 90 minutes, was extended by another one and one-half hours because, as one aide later said, the two new defense chiefs felt they had so much to talk about.

At a news press conference after the meeting, the two both expressed a strong willingness to increase military exchanges and cooperation to reflect the spirit of the Sunnylands summit, referring to the meeting in early June between President Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama in California when they vowed to defy the historical precedents of clashes between an existing super power and a rising power.

Chang summarized the talks by referring to a "five-point consensus" agreed to by the two sides at the meeting: that a bilateral military tie is an important part of relations between the two nations; a boosting of high-level visits by both countries; that both sides shoulder a heavy responsibility in ensuring peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region; cooperation in non-traditional areas such as humanitarian assistance and cooperation in military archives.

Hagel said he "enthusiastically accepted" Chang's invitation to visit China next year. In addition, other senior military leaders from both sides will also exchange visits.

The Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) will for the first time participate in the 2014 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world's largest naval exercise, in Hawaii.

However, for the Chinese, the warming-up of a bilateral military relationship may not sail smoothly if some hidden rocks are not removed.

Taiwan sales

Guan Youfei, director of the foreign affairs office of the Ministry of Defense, said the Chinese have expressed deep concern over three major stumbling blocks: US arms sales to Taiwan, air and naval surveillance off the Chinese coast and a host of US laws that bar military cooperation and exchange with China.

To Chinese on the mainland, the continuous and expanding US arms sales to Taiwan is simply unacceptable, especially as the relationship across the straits has turned better than ever since 2008 when Ma Ying-jeou became the leader in Taiwan.

While the US sold arms amounting to only a few billion dollars in the first of the past three decades, the last two decades saw sales balloon to $27 billion from $19 billion, according to Guan.

China announced it was suspending military contacts with in the wake of the US arms sales to Taiwan in 2010 and 2011.

Guan reminded the Americans that last Saturday was the 31st anniversary of the joint communiqu regarding US arms sales to Taiwan. Issued by China and the US on Aug 17, 1982, the communiqu states that the US government does not seek to carry out a long-term policy of arms sales to Taiwan and that its arms sales to Taiwan will not exceed, either in qualitative or in quantitative terms, the level of those supplied in recent years since the establishment of diplomatic relations between the US and China in 1979. The US intended gradually to reduce its arms sales to Taiwan, leading, over a period of time, to a final resolution, according to the communiqu.

Guan said the US should reflect on the issue.

President Xi asked the US to stop its arms sales to Taiwan when he met with Obama in June. Guan said Xi had expressed at the meeting that China is willing to adjust its military deployment if the US stops arms sales to Taiwan.

The US has insisted that the arms sales are aimed at boosting the confidence of self-defense for Taiwan and the arms are defensive in nature. However, some US lawmakers are pushing for advanced F16C/D fighters to Taiwan.

In Taiwan, which is experiencing an increasingly intertwined economic and trade relationship with the mainland, some have regarded the more than 1,000 missiles aimed at the island from the Chinese mainland as a threat.

To Chinese on the mainland, those missiles serve as a deterrence to any who intend to pursue Taiwan independence, and they are not aimed at Taiwan's people.

Shen Dingli, vice-dean of the Institute of International Affairs at Shanghai-based Fudan University, said former Chinese President Jiang Zemin made the same proposal to President George W. Bush when they met at Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, in 2002, but the US refused the proposal as a "non-starter."

"Certainly it is an idea worthy of trial, though the causality was not correct: The US arming of Taiwan and Taiwan's pursuit of independence forced the mainland to threaten Taiwan with missiles," he said.

Bonnie Glaser, a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said that the US and China should not cut a deal without Taiwan's involvement and the guidelines under the "Six Assurances" bar such consultation.

The Six Assurances say the US will not hold prior consultations with the People's Republic of China regarding arms sales to Taiwan, and the US will not play a mediation role between the PRC and Taiwan. It was proposed by Taiwan in 1982 when China and the US were negotiating US arms sales to Taiwan. The US government agreed to the guidelines and informed the US Congress.

Glaser said she does support a unilateral gesture by Beijing to reduce the military deployment aimed at Taiwan.

"Perhaps such a gesture could be destroying the short-range ballistic missiles that are deployed opposite the island. Taiwan might then feel a reduced threat, which might have a future impact on its decisions on the arms it seeks to purchase from the United States," she said.

Chas Freeman, a retired US diplomat and an authority on China, called China's proposal a "positive, constructive and creative" effort to reduce tensions between Beijing and Washington. "The best way to eliminate these tensions is through progress in cross-strait relations," he said.

However, Richard Bush, director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, described the proposal as "not feasible" because "China's missiles are mobile, so if they are withdrawn they can be moved back in a short period of time". "It takes a long time to carry out arms sales to Taiwan," he said, adding that China has many military capabilities other than missiles.

Coastal surveillance

While most Chinese on the mainland regard US arms sales to Taiwan as an infringement on China's internal affairs, reminding them of the humiliation by Western powers in the century following the Opium War in the 1840s, many also are disturbed when they read about US air and naval surveillance off the Chinese coast.

What comes to mind for most Chinese is the shocking image of the Chinese PLA Air Force pilot Wang Wei whose plane collided with a US Navy EP-3 spy plane off the coast near China's Hainan Island, on April 1, 2001. Wang died in the accident, and the 24-crew members on the EP-3 made an emergency landing in Hainan.

The incidence sparked a nationwide protest in China against the US and China suspended all military contacts and exchanges with the US.

Over the years, Chinese leaders have repeatedly called on the US to stop its aerial and sea surveillance off China's coast. However, the US said it will continue the surveillance.

Guan, from the Ministry of Defense, said the increasing frequency and closer distance of US surveillance runs contrary to efforts of building mutual trust, calling it an "unnecessary Cold War action".

Citing the EP-3 incident as an example, he warned that such surveillance represents the highest possibility of leading to unintended conflict when military planes and ships encounter one another more often.

The two countries concluded a Military Maritime Consultative Agreement in 1998, which was supposed to help prevent and resolve such possible incidents.

Some Chinese scholars ask how the US would feel if Chinese military planes and ships started to conducting frequent patrol and surveillance off the US coast, such as near California, Florida or New York.

The US argued that it is legitimate and free to conduct surveillance in the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and it does so not just to China, but other nations in the world as well.

Glaser from the CSIS said countries have different interpretations of the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea and the kind of activities that can be conducted in a country's EEZ.

"The majority of countries agree with the US interpretations, but not all," she said.

Senior Colonel Zhou Bo from the Ministry of Defense, revealed at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June that China had thought of reciprocating by sending ships and planes to the US EEZ and had done so a few times, in contrast to the frequent surveillance by the US in China's EEZ and near China's airspace.

Legal restrictions

Despite the increasing cooperation and exchanges between the two militaries, the US still imposes legal restrictions on military cooperation with China.

The US, which imposed sanctions on arms sales to China after 1989, is also pressing the European Union to keep its ban on arms sales to China.

That ban, which put China on a list with only a few countries, is also humiliating to Chinese.

Some Western observers have also argued that banning arms exports to China would only push China to invest more in its military R&D to compete with the West. The US allowed arms sales to China in the 1980s when both saw a common enemy, the Soviet Union.

A Congressional Research Service report by Shirley Kan in May said Congress is looking at whether the Obama administration has complied with legislation overseeing dealings with the PLA and pursued contacts with the PLA that advance a prioritized set of US security interests, especially the operational safety of US military personnel.

The oversight legislation includes the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY1990-FY1991 and National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2000.

However, skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with the PRC have debated whether the contacts have achieved results in US objectives and whether the contacts have contributed to the PLA's war-fighting capabilities that might harm US security interests. Some have argued about whether the value that US officials place on the contacts overly extends leverage to the PLA, the report said.

Some believe talks can serve US interests that include conflict avoidance, crisis management, military and civilian coordination; transparency and reciprocity; tension reduction over Taiwan; weapons nonproliferation; nuclear/missile/space/cyber talks; counterterrorism; and POW/MIA accounting, according to the report.

Chas Freeman said the US and China must look for common ground rather than common foes, like in the 1980s.

Going forward

While Defense Minister Chang again raised China's concerns on these long-standing issues, the US has not given a clear answer on some of the thorny questions. But Guan indicated that Hagel agreed to set up working groups as a means to seek solutions through active communications.

Hagel also said he and Chang welcomed the recent establishment of the US-China cyber working group as a venue for addressing concerns over that new issue.

Guan said both defense chiefs have realized that when Hagel visits China next year, they should schedule more time to talk.

"There are so many issues, and you can easily talk away one day on one single issue," he said.

Next week, Chang and Hagel will run into each other again at a meeting of Asia-Pacific defense chiefs in Brunei, when a host of other issues, such as denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the US pivot to Asia and the tension over maritime territorial disputes in the South China Sea and East China Sea, are expected to be in spotlight.

Contact the writer at

Editor's picks
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349