Military exercises a step forward, but trust is key to improving Sino-US ties
The surest way to lessen the mutual mistrust arising from China's growing military might and the resurgent US maritime interest in Asia is through cooperation and building understanding. Relations should be helped by American-hosted multinational naval exercises under way this week off Hawaii that include the People's Liberation Army for the first time. There is also the chance for China of improving ties with other participating nations, Japan among them. But involvement alone will not calm choppy waters; that only comes about through sustained effort at numerous levels.
Where trust is involved, military cooperation is a good place to start. The Rim of the Pacific (Rimpac) is the world's biggest maritime exercise, involving 23 nations. Four Chinese vessels - a missile destroyer, a missile frigate, an oiler and a hospital ship - are among the 49 surface vessels and six submarines taking part. Deepening cooperation, three of the Chinese ships will visit the port city of San Diego after training ends on Tuesday.
It is a far cry from the last exercises in 2012, when the US snubbed China by instead inviting for the first time India and Russia. The decision angered Beijing, which saw it as a furthering of a perceived US strategy of containment. Relations have since become increasingly rocky, with rising tensions between China and US allies Japan and the Philippines and Washington-friendly Vietnam over territorial disputes in the East and South China seas. The near-collision between a Chinese landing ship and the guided missile cruiser the USS Cowpens last November and the near misses of jets from China and Japan flying near the Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands highlighted the need for better military communication.
Asia-Pacific naval chiefs agreed on communications and manoeuvring protocols to reduce risks at a meeting in Qingdao in April. More such measures are needed. But as necessary is building understanding and trust through the region's militaries working together. For China, Rimpac is a continuation of a process that began in 2002 with observer status at the US-led Cobra Gold military exercises in Thailand. Chinese forces have since worked beside the US in disaster relief operations and anti-piracy measures off Somalia in 2012.
China's involvement in Rimpac is a positive sign for relations with the US. But military-to-military cooperation in itself will not dissipate the mutual mistrust. For that to happen, there also has to be sustained diplomatic and political effort.