Chi­nese and US mil­i­taries must avoid cri­sis

... then the top pri­or­ity for the two mil­i­taries is cri­sis man­age­ment.

China Daily (USA) - - VIEWS -

News of the Sino-Rus­sian joint ex­er­cise, Joint-Sea 2016, in the South China Sea in Septem­ber is ap­par­ently ir­ri­tat­ing to the Com­man­der of theUS Pa­cific Fleet Ad­mi­ral Scott Swift, who, de­spite vis­it­ing China in early Au­gust, de­scribed the joint drill as an ac­tion “not in­creas­ing the sta­bil­ity within the re­gion” but “could have been con­ducted” in other places.

Rus­sia’s in­volve­ment in the South China Sea is not some­thing theUnited States is happy about. A China-Rus­sia ex­er­cise could eas­ily dwarf the joint ex­er­cise of theUS and the Philip­pines. It will also show China is not stand­ing alone af­ter the rul­ing of the ar­bi­tral tri­bunal. It also con­trasts with theUS’ failed bid to call on Ja­pan, Aus­tralia and In­dia to join its pa­trols in the South China Sea.

China has held joint ex­er­cises with both Rus­sia and theUS, but those ex­er­cises were fun­da­men­tally dif­fer­ent in pur­pose. The Sino-Rus­sian ex­er­cise this Septem­ber re­flects the strate­gic part­ner­ship be­tween the two nations which is not, but next only to, an al­liance. Both coun­tries have crit­i­cized the de­ploy­ment of the Ter­mi­nalHigh-Al­ti­tude Area De­fense anti-mis­sile sys­tem in the Repub­lic of Korea. They be­lieve the move would desta­bi­lize the strate­gic equi­lib­rium on the Korean Penin­sula and dam­age China’s and Rus­sia’s strate­gic se­cu­rity. Re­cent years also found the drills ex­tended to pre­vi­ously un­charted wa­ters in theMediter­ranean and the Sea of Ja­pan. The sce­nar­ios be­came in­creas­ingly so­phis­ti­cated and were not con­fined to tac­ti­cal level. LastMay the two coun­tries also held a joint com­puter-as­sisted anti-mis­sile drill.

This is in sharp con­trast to the sub­dued mil­i­tary ex­er­cises be­tween China and theUS which are re­stricted to “non-sen­si­tive” hu­man­i­tar­ian ar­eas such as hu­man­i­tar­ian aid and disas­ter re­lief, and anti-piracy and res­cue mis­sions at sea. Both sides have made painstak­ing ef­forts to ex­plore newar­eas, but there is a glass ceil­ing for fur­ther co­op­er­a­tion. Since 2000 theUS Congress has for­bid­den ex­changes be­tween theUS mil­i­tary and China’s Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army in 12 op­er­a­tional ar­eas be­cause the PLA could learn too much from such ex­changes and “cre­ate a na­tional se­cu­rity risk”.

If the great­est chal­lenge to China-US re­la­tion­ship is trust, then the top pri­or­ity for the two mil­i­taries is cri­sis man­age­ment. Many ac­ci­dents or near ac­ci­dents have oc­curred, such as the Chi­nese and US air­craft col­li­sion in 2001, the stand­off be­tween USNS Im­pec­ca­ble and USS Cow­pens on one side and Chi­nese ships on the other in 2009 and 2013, and the deadly close en­counter be­tween a Chi­nese J-11B fighter jet with aUSN P-8 in 2014. The ac­ci­dents or near ac­ci­dents oc­curred in China’s ex­clu­sive eco­nomic zones. But given the PLA’s in­creas­ing in­volve­ment overseas, the pos­si­bil­ity of un­planned meet­ing be­tween Chi­nese and theUS mil­i­tary ves­sels or air­craft has in­creased.

That is why con­fi­dence build­ing mea­sures such as Code for Un­planned En­coun­ters at Sea and the Rules of Be­hav­ior for Safety ofMar­itime and Air En­counter be­tween China and theUS are im­por­tant. CUES, for ex­am­ple, pro­vides a set of com­mu­ni­ca­tion and op­er­a­tional pro­ce­dures to avoid a ship get­ting too close to any ves­sels in for­ma­tion; avoid aim­ing guns, mis­siles, and fire con­trol radars in the di­rec­tion of ves­sels or air­craft en­coun­tered. They can help avoid mis­cal­cu­la­tions and mis­judg­ments.

CanChi­naandtheUS con­duct joint ex­er­cis­esonCUESandRule of Be­hav­ior in the SouthChina Sea? TheChi­ne­se­andUS­navies prac­ticedCUES­dur­ing twoRi­mof the Pa­cific Ex­er­cises in the wa­ters off Hawaii. But it is the wa­ters of the SouthChina Sea that is­mostvolatile. AndChina is­more­de­ter­mined to safe­guard its sovereignty af­ter the ar­bi­tral rul­ing that Bei­jing re­jected.

TheUS has vowed to con­tinue fly­ing and sail­ing in the South China Sea in the name of “free­dom of nav­i­ga­tion”. But de­spite China and theUS be­ing at log­ger­heads, it is in the in­ter­est of both coun­tries to avoid ac­ci­dents, let alone a con­flict, in the fu­ture. A man­age­able re­la­tion­ship be­tween the two gi­ants is also an as­sur­ance for lit­toral states in the re­gion, be­cause “the grass will suf­fer, if the ele­phants fight”. The au­thor is an hon­orary fel­low at the Cen­ter on China-Amer­i­can De­fense Re­la­tions, Academy of Mil­i­tary Science.

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