The visit of a military delegation from China led by General Fan Changlong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission of the Communist Party of China (CMC) to the U.S. last week has fielded some positive results. The weeklong trip saw the signing of an agreement between the PRC and U.S. to further a burgeoning military relationship as well as plans for further visits. At a time when the U.S. and China are increasingly engaging in a war of words over the latter’s activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere, such an agreement no matter how limited it might be is an encouraging sign.

U.S. And China Agree To Hold Joint Military Drills

Fan’s Visit to the U.S.

Since Chinese President Xi Jinping assumed the presidency in late 2012, Fan is the most senior Chinese military leader to visit Washington D.C. During Fan’s weeklong trip, he and his delegation toured several U.S. military facilities culminating in meetings at the Pentagon with U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carte. Guan Youfei, director of the Foreign Affairs Office of China’s National Defense Ministry said Fan’s trip last week was primarily to create a “positive atmosphere” leading up to the planned upcoming September visit to the U.S. by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Among the wide ranging topics discussed during Fan’s weeklong visit to the U.S. included maritime issues in the South China Sea, relations with Taiwan and Japan, the situation on the Korean peninsula, and military-to-military relations between the PRC and the U.S.

Enhancing Bilateral Military Relations

General Fan and U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno signed a dialogue of understanding at the National Defense University on Friday, June 12th in Washington D.C. The signing of this framework to establish an Army-to-Army Dialogue Mechanism will serve to enhance coordination in humanitarian assistance missions and disaster response practices as well as helping to promote mutual understanding between both countries. The latter aspect is especially important at a time when even a minor incident between the U.S. and Chinese military can unintentionally escalate into something far more dangerous, a notion echoed by General Vincent Brooks, U.S. Army Pacific Commander.  This framework is a significant step in developing bilateral military ties between the U.S. and China.

Fan himself proposed three initiatives to build a U.S.-China military-to-military relationship. First, he spoke of the need for continued and increased high-level military exchanges. With that said, Fan invited Carter to visit China this year to further military cooperation; Carter who assumed his position in February this year, has yet to visit China in his current capacity. The second initiative concerned increased military cooperation, a goal which saw a significant step with the signing of the Army-to-Army Dialogue Mechanism. Lastly Fan called for greater effort to be placed on avoiding misunderstanding and misjudgment between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. With that, he suggested increased effort should be placed on signing the Code of Safe Conduct on Naval and Air Encounters by August.

China has also been invited to take part in the 2016 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) naval exercises; RIMPAC is the largest international maritime exercise held in the world. This is not the first time that China has been invited to participate with the first being in 2014 though China’s participation then certainly left much to be desired. Despite the invite, the commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Admiral Harry Harris has said that the U.S. reserves the right to withdraw the invitation to China if it continues its provocative actions in the South China Sea. While certain members of congress and the administration oppose participation by China in RIMPAC, it is being supported by many naval flag officers in the navy who are encouraging increased military-to-military engagement with China.

U.S. – China Military-to-Military Engagement

The discussions last week and the framework signed by U.S. and Chinese officials will not bring an end to the tensions between the U.S. and China. Nor will they resolve the more contentious issues such as Chinese island building in the South China Sea. What they did do was allow for constructive dialogue to occur and for new avenues of communication and engagement to be established. The disagreements between the U.S. and China will in no way be solved overnight. Instead small steps must be taken and the events of last week provided several of those steps.