While China and the United States’ significant nuclear forces makes it hard to imagine a future war between them, the possibility of localized military conflicts over the East China Sea, Taiwan, or the South China Sea cannot be ruled out. With the Trump administration’s release of the National Security Strategy, National Defense Strategy, and Indo-Pacific Strategy Report, the focus of U.S. security strategy has shifted to great power competition. A confrontational U.S. stance toward China, diverging security interests, and a growing gap between the two countries’ security strategies are leading to a gradual deterioration of China-U.S. military relations. Unlike previous ups and downs, this deterioration is likely to lead to ongoing competition or even confrontation in the years ahead. In this context, an effectively managed military-to-military relationship will be the key to preventing crises from escalating into war.

The Weakening of Common Security Interests

After the Cold War, China and the United States shared extensive interests in some traditional areas such as ensuring security in the Asia Pacific, maintaining stability on the Korean Peninsula, and preventing regional tensions. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, China-U.S. cooperation occurred in many areas of non-traditional security such as counterterrorism, non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief, and transnational crime—areas that still offer many opportunities for expanded collaboration. The adjustment of U.S. security strategy toward strategic competition with China, however, means that these common interests are no longer a priority.

The biggest problem in China-U.S. military relations is still the Taiwan issue. The 2019 White Paper of China’s National Defense said, “the People’s Liberation Army will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.” Meanwhile, the United States has deepened its military ties with Taiwan by publicizing cooperation projects and increasing arms sales. In addition, the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report said, “DoD is continually engaged in evaluating Taiwan’s defense needs to assist Taiwan in identifying capabilities that are mobile, survivable, and effective in resisting the use of force or other forms of coercion.” In other words, both sides are in a deadlock. Other negative factors in China-U.S. military relations include the U.S. position on the territorial disputes and maritime jurisdictions between China and its maritime neighbors, which Beijing sees as intentionally favoring other claimant states. In addition, China and the United States have different interpretations on various concepts and provisions of the law of the sea, specifically on the issue of freedom of navigation.

As the United States has begun to regard China as a strategic competitor, its willingness to engage in non-traditional security cooperationhas waned. This is in large part due to concerns that China’s involvement would weaken U.S. influence over its allies and partners and challenge its dominance in regional security matters. Some U.S. senior officials have repeatedly stressed the importance of exploring possible areas for cooperation even while engaging in competition with the Chinese military, but the lack of specific cooperation projects in the last two years shows that this statement is largely political posturing.

A Widening Gap Between Security Strategies

China does not regard the United States as a potential rival, nor does it envisage a new Cold War. There are also no official statements saying that China has ever made it a strategic goal to drive the United States out of the Asia Pacific. Rather, the Chinese government has called for a new vision of a common, comprehensive, cooperative, and sustainable security pathway featuring broad consultation, joint contributions, and shared benefits. Therefore, China’s Asia-Pacific security strategy does not exclude the United States from participating.

The United States, however, has embraced a unipolar security vision which the National Defense Strategy says is meant to “ensure the balances of power remain in our favor, and advance an international order that is most conducive to our security and prosperity.” In the strategic framework of great power competition, the Pentagon has clearly identified China as a potential adversary that intends to replace the United States as the dominant global power. It even regards China as its chief challenger, more threatening than Russia, according to the 2019 Indo-Pacific Strategy Report. This has made containment of China central to U.S. security strategy.

In contrast to the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China has not articulated an objective of becoming a U.S. rival. Instead, the competition is perceived as such only on the U.S. side. China’s overall military power is still far behind that of the United States, but many senior U.S. military officers believe that the Chinese military has overtaken the United States in some areas now and will surpass it overall very soon. This sense of crisis is widely shared in the White House and the Pentagon, leading them to adjust U.S. strategy based on a hypothesis of Chinese intentions that lacks sufficient evidence.

Military Relations as a Stabilizer in Great Power Competition

Within this context of great power competition, the Chinese government still hopes to maintain good military relations with the United States. It seeks to apply the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation in order to make the military-to-military relationship a stabilizer for overall relations between the two countries. The U.S. government  agrees on the stabilizing role the military-to-military relationship should play. As the chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, said, “We have worked very hard to have a mil-to-mil relationship that again can be stabilizing. And both President Xi Jinping and President Trump have characterized the military to military relationship as an aspect of a relationship that should be, in fact, stabilizing.”

To this end, both sides’ military leaders should consider several important steps. As a baseline, Washington and Beijing should keep current communication channels open. This includes the Department of Defense hotline, dialogue and consultation mechanisms, and mutual visits by military leaderships. Frontline forces on both sides should remain self-restrained, implement crisis prevention agreements, and follow established codes of conduct, including the Memorandum of Understanding on the Notification of Major Military Activities and the Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, which built on the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea.

The two militaries should also consider enhancing communication on emerging strategic issues, such as nuclear weapons, cyber security, outer space, and artificial intelligence, which can prevent strategic misunderstanding and miscalculation. And over the long-term, both sides should persist in seeking various forms of exchanges and cooperation. Although many projects are only symbolic, they still have a positive effect on mutual trust.

Stabilization mechanisms like these will be the key to managing differences, preventing conflicts, and avoiding a broader crisis in China-U.S. relations.

About Liu Xiaobo

Captain Liu Xiaobo (Ret.) is an associate research fellow and director of the World Navy Research Center, National Institute for South China Sea Studies (NISCSS), in Haikou, China. His research focuses on national maritime security policy, sea power, and the Law of the Sea. Prior to joining the NISCSS, Capt. Liu served in the Chinese navy for 25 years, working as a navigation officer aboard the PLAN destroyer Harbin and later as a research associate in the Naval Research Institute.