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In 1998 the United States and China established the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) to avoid accidents when their respective maritime and air forces operate in close proximity. Sixteen years of negotiations yielded little progress, until now. Two agreements on military confidence building measures were inked at the US-China summit in Beijing: notification of major military activities and a code of conduct for safe conduct of naval and air military encounters. Together, they hold out promise that despite persisting mistrust and ongoing preparations to deter and defeat the other side if conflict breaks out, the US and Chinese militaries can work together to reduce misperception, increase predictability, and lower the risk of accident that could result in inadvertent escalation in a crisis.

Both initiatives were proposed by President Xi Jinping in June 2013 when he met with President Obama in Sunnylands. The accords are works in progress; the areas agreed to so far are limited, but there are expectations that these will be expanded through ongoing negotiations. In addition, there is an understanding that the agreements are voluntary and are not targeting a “third party.” The notification of respective major military activities will include two elements: defense reports and military exercises. The US will notify China when it issues reports such as the Defense Strategic Guidance, the Quadrennial Defense Review and the annual DoD report to Congress on military and security developments involving the PRC. China will notify the US when it issues its Defense White Paper and other such reports that it may produce in the future. Mutual notification of major shifts in defense policies will also be included.

The two militaries will inform each other when they conduct major exercises in the Asia-Pacific region. The timing of notification of both reports and exercises will be left up to each side to determine, although the hope is that over time both militaries will move toward advance, rather than ex post facto notification. Notification of other major military activities will be discussed and added as annexes. The US hopes to reach agreement in the future on reciprocal notification of ballistic missile launches, including space launches. So far the PLA has been non-committal. China already has an agreement with Russia to notify each other of ballistic missile launches in the direction of each other’s territory that went into effect in December 2012.

The maritime code of conduct will include guidelines for ship operators when they sail near each other at sea. These guidelines are based on internationally recognized rules of navigation including the 1972 Convention on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS), and the Code of Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). In subsequent negotiations, the two militaries will negotiate procedures for deconflicting operations when aircraft encounter each other and between aircraft and ships.

Beijing resisted concluding military CBM agreements with the US for years, even after the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter jet and a US surveillance plane, primarily because it did not want to appear to give legitimacy to US close-in surveillance operations along China’s coast. Under Xi Jinping, however, China has signaled that it not only wants to avoid accidents, but also wants to establish a more cooperative relationship with the US military as part of an overall “new type of major power relations” that Xi first proposed in early 2012. Xi has apparently instructed the PLA to engage constructively with

US military counterparts, including in joint exercises, and to avoid dangerous intercepts that could result in mishaps.

Agreement on these basic military CBMs is a good start. As maritime patrols and aerial activities have increased in disputed waters and near contentious territories, so too has the risk of an accident that could spiral out of control. These steps, if implemented and followed by additional measures, can reduce the potential for mishaps between the US and Chinese militaries, as well as provide a template that can be applied to other regional military rivalries, such as China and Japan.

Progressing to advance notification of major military activities and expanding the scope of military activities to include ballistic missile and ASAT tests will add more substance. Expanding the maritime code of conduct accord to include aircraft is essential, since air accidents are more likely and more dangerous than naval incidents. As is the case with any agreement, implementation is key, and the provisions in these agreements should be mandatory rather than voluntary when both sides are ready. Periodic meetings to discuss compliance and any violations that occur will also contribute to the shared goals of reducing misunderstanding and building a sustained and substantive bilateral military relationship.

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About Bonnie Glaser

Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and the director of the China Power Project at CSIS, where she works on issues related to Chinese foreign and security policy. She is concomitantly a non-resident fellow with the Lowy Institute in Sydney, a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia.