China and US slowly building trust between militaries

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 3:18am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 March, 2014, 5:57am

A healthy relationship, whether it is between people or governments, requires understanding, trust and co-operation. These can only come about from interaction, and this is the basis behind increasing communication between the Chinese and American militaries. In the latest move last month, the sides agreed that their armies would establish regular high-level dialogue. Amid increasing tension over territorial disputes and the continuing US pivot to Asia, open channels of discussion are a necessity to avoid conflict.

The US army's chief of staff, General Raymond Odierno, and his Chinese counterparts made that plain during talks in Beijing that laid the groundwork for the deal. Details will be finalised when US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel visits China next month; it is to be hoped that similar arrangements for the air force and navy will also be established. But it is not just at the highest levels that dialogue has to take place. The near collision in the South China Sea on December 5 of the US cruiser Cowpens and a landing vessel during exercises involving the aircraft carrier Liaoning highlighted that there also has to be direct lines of communication at operational levels.

But preventing misunderstandings does not simply mean setting up hotlines and regular meetings. President Xi Jinping's taking office heralded a new era for military-to-military ties between China and the US. Since last April when People's Liberation Army Chief of Staff General Fang Fenghui hosted his American counterpart General Martin Dempsey, there has been a seemingly never-ending number of senior military and defence officials travelling between Beijing and Washington. Critically, though, it is also co-operation between the rank-and-file of the military branches that will make for solid relations.

A taste of this was given last November when PLA soldiers took part in joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercises in Hawaii, the first time they had set foot on American soil. PLA Navy participation for the first time this summer in the Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world's largest international maritime operations, will further Chinese co-operation with the US and regional navies. It is from such experiences that relationships and practices that make co-operation easier in times of crisis can be developed. Improved communication and trust-building comes not just from talk, but working together at a practical level.