The pomp and circumstance of US Admiral Michael Mullen’s four day trip to China last week was the backdrop for the latest step in the Obama administration’s policy of engagement with the rising Asian giant: to rebuild military-to-military relations. But US policy in East Asia is being pulled in divergent directions.
Mullen’s visit came in the wake of a series of angry naval and diplomatic exchanges between China and its neighbors in the South China Sea (SCS), the 1.3-million-square-mile area of the Pacific that is subject to competing territorial claims by half a dozen regional powers. Many of the world’s busiest shipping lanes run through the SCS, which is also thought to hold large deposits of oil and natural gas and is one of the world’s richest fishing waters. In the last two months, Chinese ships have been involved in clashes, some reportedly involving the exchange of gunfire, with Vietnamese and Filipino oil and gas survey and fishing vessels.
US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton riled China last year when, during her big Asia visit, she defined freedom of navigation in the SCS as a US national interest and offered to help mediate a multilateral resolution of local disputes. Since then, the US has carried out joint naval activities in the area with Japan, Australia, the Philippines and most recently Vietnam, where US naval forces visited last week for joint activities that officials from both countries have carefully avoided calling a military exercise. The issue threatened to cloud the whole visit.
China has declared most of the SCS to be its sovereign waters and wants disputes resolved bilaterally with each country that has competing claims: Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei. To the Chinese, this, like the Tibet issue, is simply not up for debate. As the state-run news agency Xinhua recently stated in one of its news articles, “history shows that China has indisputable sovereignty over the sea’s islands and their surrounding waters.”
So it is perhaps not surprising that when the issue was raised repeatedly by reporters at a joint press conference last week in Beijing, Mullen and his Chinese counterpart, General Chen Bingde, had what reads in the transcript like a rather irritable exchange. Chen argued that if the Americans really wanted to promote stability and the peaceful resolution of competing territorial claims in the SCS, it ought not to have staged those naval exercises, saying, “At least, I think, this is bad timing”.
Mullen responded with the usual bromides about how the exercises were small, long-planned and unrelated to the disputes over SCS. “If [the] US truly intends to make positive contributions (to stability and the peaceful resolution of the competing claims) I think a change of the schedule wouldn’t be an issue,” retorted Chen. “It’s not that difficult a thing to change a schedule,” he repeated.
His irritation – if that’s what it was – is understandable. In a speech the previous day to Renmin, The People’s University – the first such address by a top US military leader to the institution, the original national university established by Communist China in 1950 – Mullen bluntly staked out a US claim to the Pacific, China’s backyard. “Now more than ever, the United States is a Pacific nation, and it is clear that our security interests and our economic wellbeing are tied to Asia’s,” he said, lauding the US’ “many responsibilities and commitments to allies, partners and friends here, commitments we expect to deepen and to broaden.”
In other words, we’re here to stay. It’s a message US officials have often previously tried to soft-pedal. But Mullen emphatically stated the US’ position at a roundtable with US journalists during his trip. “We have an enduring presence here,” he said of the SCS and Asia generally, “We have an enduring responsibility.”
Growing interdependence…and friction
In part, that more aggressive message is driven by the US military’s increasing reliance on its allies as partners in assuring Asian security.
Back in February, a little-noticed section of the US National Military Strategy asserted that, over the next decade, “The nation’s strategic priorities and interests will increasingly emanate from the Asia-Pacific region.”
But as threats in Asia grow, tight budgets will force the US to rely on closer partnerships with allies to bolster its military power in that region, according to the strategy, issued by Mullen’s office. “As [non-US] military capability and capacity increases in Asia, we will seek new ways to catalyze greater regional security cooperation,” it stated.
The more the US relies on its allies to help maintain security, the more it will have to make public statements about its commitments in the region which might alarm the Chinese. “The worry, among others that I have,” Mullen said in Beijing, “is that the ongoing incidents (in the SCS) could spark a miscalculation and an outbreak that no one anticipated. And we should seek to avoid that under all circumstances.”
Indeed, that’s the point of engagement, and especially the effort to build military-to-military relations with potential adversaries, as one senior US diplomat recently explained it to ISN Insights. “If you have a relationship with someone, even if you disagree over a significant issue … you can debate, you can argue, but you don’t go to war.”
And those efforts to engage China were front and center of the planned agenda of Mullen’s time in the country, complete with carefully staged “firsts” – like his viewing of a previously secret Chinese missile at the headquarters of the Second Artillery, from where China’s military controls its strategic arsenal.
But even Chen’s opening remarks at their joint press availability betrayed impatience with the US. “The key to developing healthy, stable and reliable military-to-military relations is mutual trust. And the precondition of it is mutual respect … If there is lack of respect and trust between countries, then the relationship between countries will be baseless,” he explained, carefully not naming any names. “I sincerely and truly hope that our American friends will understand the underlying logic, be more modest and prudent in words and deeds,” he concluded.
Indeed, in his speech at Renmin University, Mullen was careful to acknowledge China’s emergence as a new global power, whose rise could bring new capabilities to the international community. And in a news release issued after the conference, the two leaders announced plans for a series of high-level military visits and joint humanitarian military activities – including multinational anti-piracy naval maneuvers in the Gulf of Aden this year, and humanitarian rescue and disaster relief exercises with US forces in 2012, according to the state run Xinhua news agency. Hospital ships of the two navies will conduct exchanges and carry out joint medical and rescue drills in addition to the other joint exercises, Xinhua said.
For the Obama administration, one of the keys to managing China’s rise lies in steering it toward a role as a good global citizen. Its efforts to engage China in global humanitarian and security-building initiatives reflect the administration's belief in the positive impact such participation can have.
Whether that US hope is borne out or not, tensions over issues like the SCS territorial claims are bound to keep cropping up in the Pacific. After all, even good global citizens will feel entitled to spheres of influence.