On Monday, a delegation led by a senior People’s Liberation Army (PLA) general arrived in the United States at the invitation of U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter. This visit comes at a time when security relations between the U.S. and China are growing increasingly strained due to cybersecurity attacks emanating from China and Chinese actions in the South China Sea which threaten peace and stability.

Top Military Officer Of China Visits U.S. Amid South China Sea Tension

The Chinese officer is General Fan Changlong, the first vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China (CMC). Fan has served as first vice-chairman since November 2012 and is expected to step down in the fall of 2017. The CMC has command and control over the PLA, the Chinese military as a whole. Recently during U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry’s trip to Beijing, Fan was the only Chinese military official to meet with Kerry. While Fan is on his way out of the CMC in two years, he does hold substantial influence. His rise through the ranks and into the CMC is unprecedented while he has been provided more influential duties than his fellow vice chair, Xu Qiliang who is closer to President Xi Jinping.

Fan’s visit to the U.S. is not contained to Washington D.C. and his visit with Carter on Thursday and with the State Department and White House on Friday. He will also visit a Boeing factory, three military bases, and tour the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan before reaching Washington D.C. The military bases include Naval Station North Island, California; Fort Hood in Texas; Marine Corps Recruit Depot San Diego. The Boeing facility in the Seattle area can either be the Boeing Everett Factory or Renton Factory. Also part of the delegation is Admiral Sun Jianguo, the deputy chief of the PLA General Staff. Following the visit in the U.S., the delegation will head to Cuba though there is no other information available on that aspect.

Military-to-Military Engagement is Nothing New

Military-to-military engagement through cross visits by Chinese and U.S. military leaders is nothing new. In 2012 the U.S. received Chinese minister of national defense General Liang Guanglie who at the time was the highest-ranking Chinese military official to visit the U.S. in nearly a decade while two years later, General Fang Fenghui, Chief of the General Staff of the PLA did the same. In 2013, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff travelled to China. Over the past several years many other military-to-military exchanges in addition have occurred.

The purposes for these exchanges vary. In many instances they are attempts at greater engagement and cooperation. The conventional thinking is by having senior leaders with decision making ability interact with one another, they are then in a better position to understand each other’s actions and reduce the chances of misunderstanding. Establishing relationships is also critical to preventing crises and opening new channels for engagement. While such engagements are looked favorably upon in military circles, they are cause for concern to some in Congress who feel they are more for publicity than for establishing a consistent policy.

On the other hand, visits sometimes come into play as a way to stabilize increasing tensions. Military-to-military engagement can provide two countries with the opportunity to find a way out of an immediate crisis without attracting the level of attention there would be if such engagement occurred between high-ranking diplomatic and other government officials.

There are Serious Issues Negatively Impacting U.S. – China Relations

While a visit from a senior Chinese officer should not be construed as a harbinger of a soon to be crisis between the U.S. and China, Fan’s visit does come at a low point. The U.S. is concerned about China’s economic and military rise while over the past two years especially, China has given our regional allies extra cause for concern. Chinese island building in the South China Sea coupled with increasingly provocative actions against regional states give cause for alarm. Additionally, the U.S. is repeatedly on the receiving end of Chinese cyber-attacks though China is not the only culprit and it would be remiss to say the U.S. does not engage in such activities as well.

Cyber-attacks on the U.S. emanating from China have been occurring for years though the intensity and depth of them are increasing. Just last week it was announced that the records of up to 4 million current and former federal employees held by the Office of Personnel Management (OPM) may have been compromised in a Chinese attack on OPMs computer system. Though it must be said that some doubt the most recent intrusion came from China, China has been implicated in other attacks. Ian Bremmer, geopolitical expert and founder of Eurasia Group has recently said that the Chinese are in fact engaged in a cyberwar with the U.S. and that it is “..far more costly and dangerous than threats from terrorism.”

Chinese island-building in the South China Sea has expanded heavily in recent months with many in the U.S. and in the South East Asia region arguing that it is yet one more attempt by China to solidify its hold on disputed islands. The South China Sea dispute concerns multiple islands and maritime areas with the primary disputes being between China, the Republic of China, Vietnam, and the Philippines. These disputes have existed for some time though in recent years have deepened. In addition for the possibility of conflict between China and other claimant nations, is the potential for direct conflict between the U.S. and China. A wrong move by either side can spiral into conflict, a prospect which is not high on the lists of what Washington or Beijing want.

The Importance of the Visit

The visit by Fan would seem to be for varied purposes. Of course there will be policy discussion but the planned trips to U.S. military facilities and a Boeing factory seem unnecessary and a waste of time if the true goal is to address and reduce tensions. It will be said that this “friendly” trip is nothing more than that, just a regular visit where policy is mixed with publicity and to establish and deepen connections. If true, so much the better as it will show that U.S.-China relations are not as negative as they are sometimes portrayed to be. The planned trip to Cuba also serves to minimize the importance of this visit. Sure for logistical purposes, if one travels to the U.S. from China, might as well take advantage of the closeness of Cuba. On the other hand, if this trip is highly focused on current tensions, it would center solely on the U.S.

Arguably there have been more important political and diplomatic engagements in recent weeks such as Kerry visiting Beijing. Nonetheless, as far as military-to-military engagements are concerned, the visit by Fan and his delegation at this time just following the supposed Chinese cyber-attack on OPM is nothing to be dismissed. While this week visit will not solve all the contentious bits of the U.S.-China relationship, it does provide an opportunity to address certain negative aspects.

By Stephen Paul B