Last week’s meetings between President Obama and Xi Jinping were fruitful in more ways than one. The obvious success, and the most celebrated, was the “US-China Joint Announcement on Climate Change and CleanEnergy Cooperation”. A small aspect of the news conference, almost an aside, was the announcement of a renewed attempt at collaboration on increased dialogue between the two powers’ militaries. This includes notifications of major maneuvers and the development of a system of rules and norms for interaction at sea and in the air. These measures aim at avoiding a military confrontation between the US and China in a region that is plagued by territorial disputes. A strategic dialogue between the U.S. and China is an important first step in an attempt at obviating accidental war.
In light of the implications of failure in this regard, it would seem that the promotion of greater transparency and expansion of communication between the PLA and U.S. military, as well as the respective National Security complexes at the political level, could only serve as a safeguard of the intertwined interests of the two economic giants. There are skeptics though, and the parallels to the US-Soviet cooperation of yore may be misplaced when they are used in reference to a far more complicated interstate relationship, as well as a more volatile and multi-interested geopolitical situation.
Michael Pillsbury’s article in Foreign Policy blames the failure of past efforts on the “opacity of the Chinese”. While this could be argued in a very general sense, it could also be asserted that the divergences in Chinese and western strategic thought, along with the dictates of geopolitics and ideology combine to create a China that fails to see how its interests would be secured by increased cooperation with a status quo power, and a U.S. national security establishment that grows suspicious of Chinese stonewalling, even forcing some policymakers to consider the Chinese national security establishment as inherently opposed to the security interests of the United States, and therefore an inevitable adversary. This type of disintegration in common security interests and goals is the premonitory underpinning of the concept of the “Thucydides Trap”.
The Chinese strategic tradition, summarized and compared to western thought in a concise manner in Henry Kissinger’s "On China", illustrates the strategic heuristics that possibly influence Chinese reticence to give away marginal advantages in exchange for a secure parity. One might consider the often compared games of Wei Qi and Chess, as an illustration of differences between Chinese and Western thought. Wei Qi requires patience, a long term strategy that focuses on marginal victories, often ambiguous and spread out among separate conflicting areas. Chess is a game of decisive battle, according to Kissinger, of total victory. There is mystery in Wei Qi’s management of stones; the chess board gives away all strategic possibilities as long as the player knows how to utilize the pieces.
This comparison continues through both cultures’ canon of strategic thought, Kissinger and Lawrence Freedman come to similar conclusions on the effect of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu on their respective progeny. The efficiency of the structure of military institutions is what drives western strategic thought; the ability to utilize military hardware and the software of personnel to overwhelm the enemy’s ability to make use of its resources precludes the reliance (at least theoretically) on subterfuge to achieve objectives in western strategic thought. Instead, intelligence gathering and misdirection make adjustments at the margins, in order to nudge the momentum of operation in a more precise direction toward wider strategic success. For Sun Tzu, the entire war is fought, won or lost, within those margins. The PLA has probably not only directly absorbed this conception of war from Sun Tzu, but also indirectly through Mao’s consideration of modern warfare and the PLA’s study of the Revolution in Military Affairs. With a strategic concept informed by victory at the margins, it’s not surprising that there might be a great deal of anxiety within China’s national security complex when it comes to increasing transparency and expanding communications with a possible adversary.
In addition to strictly kinetic strategic considerations, one must also take into account the grand strategic implications of a security dialogue between the U.S. and China. The U.S. favors such a dialogue, because the prevention of conflict maintains the status quo, a status quo in which the U.S. enjoys intense comparative advantages and entrenched power. It doesn't have territorial disputes, and its main security concerns are tied to its extensive trade and economic considerations. Deterrence is the primary policy of a state interested in maintaining the status quo, and deterrence requires speaking in a language specific to the objective. So, a full display of U.S. power and intentions, through a strategic dialogue, fits into the vernacular of deterrence.
This is not to say that the Chinese position is inherently aggressive. Chinese economic interests are vast as well and it has its own strategic considerations in the Pacific when it comes to the transportation of vital resources (such as oil) to its own economy. But, given its claim on Taiwan, the myriad of issues in the South China Sea, the territorial dispute with Japan over the Senkaku/Diayou islands, and contested borders with India, just to name a few concrete examples, the maintenance of the status quo is not in the Chinese geopolitical interests, especially if shifts in the current order present the possibility of making these concerns resolvable in China’s favor in the near future.
How should the United States respond then if the prospects for this latest security dialogue flounder? If the Chinese security establishment is unwilling to meet the U.S. halfway, then the U.S. Military should invest in a rational, unilateral transparency policy (within the realm of national security interests) that serves the purpose of deterrence and the maintenance of peace in the region. As the Chinese government and military becomes more comfortable with its relative position, it’s possible that the need for asymmetric strategies (with marginal objectives) will dissipate, and the incentives for dialogue will become more appealing.