Testing times for Sino-US military relations
Every South China Sea story has two sides, it seems. In the latest, the US Navy claims a Chinese J-11B fighter jet engaged in "Top Gun" antics as one of its P-8 Poseidon surveillance planes was on a routine mission 220km east of Hainan Island. The American version is that the J-11B's "dangerous" manoeuvres included flying to within seven metres of the P-8's wingtips, at one time passing its nose at a 90-degree angle to show its underside loaded with weaponry; the Defence Ministry rejected the allegation, calling it "totally groundless". Whatever the true version, the military-to-military dialogue and cooperation that the nations are supposed to be building does not appear to have been evident.
Such an incident is what the sides have been actively trying to avoid. A near-collision last December involving a support ship with the aircraft carrier the Liaoning and the American missile cruiser the USS Cowpens was labelled variously as a "provocation" and a "miscommunication". It harked back to 2001, when a Chinese pilot was killed after his J-8 jet and a US EP-3 reconnaissance plane collided off Hainan. The nations' top military brass have met in Beijing and Washington this year and the People's Liberation Army Navy last month for the first time participated in the US-hosted Rim of the Pacific annual multinational maritime exercises. But there is clearly much still to do to prevent mishaps.
Presidents Xi Jinping and Barack Obama pledged to build a new relationship and find ways to manage differences at their one and so far only summit in California in June last year. Having the world's two biggest economies, it is a sensible desire. Their countries, Asia and the world depend on their friendship and mutual support for peace, stability and development. But a prerequisite has to be trust and understanding, and that is not helped by so-called reconnaissance missions - a euphemism for spying.
A single incident cannot be allowed to jeopardise the progress that has been made. There are concerted efforts to engage at the highest level, but the communication has to take place at every point of military operations to ensure that there are no misunderstandings. China's military modernisation and the renewed American focus on the Asia-Pacific region makes talking and working together necessities. This has to be especially so as technology, evidenced by the use of drones and more sophisticated planes and ships, raises the stakes and risks.