Following the visit of General Chen Bingde, chief of General Staff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA), to the United States in May, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, paid a reciprocal visit to China from July 9 to 13. Mullen's visit came amid tensions over territorial claims in the South China Sea and a foreseeable dispute with the US over its arms sales to Taiwan.
In the US' strategic calculus, the rapid buildup of the PLA air force and navy are seen as posing a challenge to Washington's leadership in the Asia-Pacific region and China's unavoidable rise is viewed as a destabilizing influence on the existing global power structure. With this in mind, the US' response to the territorial dispute in the South China Sea must answer its short-term need to maintain free navigation in international waters and its long-term contingency plan in response to China's growing power.
China doesn't think free navigation can be an excuse for the US to interfere in the South China Sea disputes, and during Mullen's visit Chen reiterated the stance that the disputes should be addressed "through dialogues and diplomatic measures". However, this time the Chinese military had a more practical perception of the US military presence in the region. Chen admitted that the US presence is "already a fact" and will continue to exist.
Mullen said the US won't support any side involved in the territorial disputes, but judging from the its short- and long-term needs, the US navy would probably join forces with some Southeast Asian countries if military conflicts were to occur in the South China Sea.
The US and China both recognized the necessity to enhance military exchanges to reduce mutual distrust. Inadequate mutual trust has resulted in an attitude of self-defense and pushed it further into the policymaking mechanism in Washington and Beijing. The recent US-Philippines joint military drills and the upcoming US-Vietnam joint naval drill are "inappropriate", according to Chen.
The possibility of misjudgment in the sensitive region still exists. Under such circumstances, Washington and Beijing both consider it necessary to quicken the pace of military exchanges at various levels to avoid or reduce any strategic misjudgments between the two militaries.
Put simply, a strategic misjudgment between the two nations would result from a lack of mutual trust. In a swiftly changing world, mutual distrust can give rise to highly explosive situations in which the two nations might be involved. It is thus essential for Washington and Beijing to deepen mutual trust and narrow their differences by increasing bilateral military exchanges to maintain regional and global stability.
Chinese military showed its determination to boost mutual confidence by taking Mullen on a tour of its Second Artillery Force Headquarters in Beijing, air force and army bases in Shandong province, and inviting him to watch the PLA's anti-terror drill in Zhejiang province.
With this in mind, Mullen's visit could emerge as a golden opportunity for the US and China to strengthen bilateral efforts to consolidate military contacts, communications and dialogues.
The United States and China already share strategic interests in coping with a series of global issues, such as terrorism, nuclear non-proliferation and missile technology control regimes, cooperation in the UN Security Council, combating piracy, humanitarian disaster relief and prevention and drug smuggling.
The help offered by none of Washington's allies in Northeast Asia can match the scale and range of cooperation between China and the US in recent decades. Only global terror groups would benefit from a military confrontation between the Washington and Beijing, for they could seize the opportunity to renew their violent attacks. Hence, it's good news that the US and China will hold unprecedented joint counter-piracy exercises in the Gulf of Aden by the end of this year.
Sino-US military ties are the weakest link in bilateral relations. Once the US announces that it will proceed with a planned arms sale to Taiwan, China will cut military ties with it. During Mullen's visit, Chen said China too has its interests and there are lines that can't be crossed. Though it's impossible for joint anti-terror drills to bridge the trust gap caused by the US' arms sales to Taiwan, it's still important for both sides to increase cooperation in the fields of shared interests to offset the negative impact in some other fields.
The Pentagon's reception of General Chen in May and Admiral Mullen's visit to China this month are crucial components of an overall program, aimed at avoiding, or at least reducing, the risk of misjudgment by the militaries of the two countries.
To begin enhancing mutual trust, Washington and Beijing must first respect and care for each other's core interests and then strengthen dialogue and communication.
In this respect, Mullen's visit is a golden chance to boost mutual trust and develop common interests.
The author is a research associate at Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University.