Mutual trust between China and US is key to lowering tensions in the South China Sea
Central Military Commission vice-chairman Fan Changlong's visit to the US was planned long ago, yet it could not have come at a more necessary time. With tensions rising in the South China Sea and President Xi Jinping making a state trip to Washington in September, there was no better opportunity to lower the heat. Talks last week with US Defence Secretary Ash Carter focused on areas of mutual concern, importantly among them quickly working towards a deal to lessen the risk of military planes and ships colliding. Such high-level dialogue is essential to further the trust and understanding so vital to improving relations.
Fan is China's second-highest-ranking military officer; he answers only to Xi. No Chinese military official of such a stature has visited the US since 2012 and there has not been a more important time for improved contact. The chance of a military mishap has been increased by the US' sending of a spy plane over Chinese land reclamation works on the Nansha Islands, China's name for the Spratlys, and threats to sail warships through the disputed waters to "protect freedom of passage". Tensions have been further raised through US arms sales and strengthened alliances with China's neighbours.
Neither side gave ground during Fan's meetings. But the foreign ministry announced on Tuesday the reclamation would be completed "in the upcoming days" and infrastructure projects would then begin. For Beijing, it is a matter of sovereignty; for Washington, protection of interests. The issue will be high on the agenda for Xi and his American counterpart, Barack Obama. But their militaries also have a crucial role.
Through regular dialogue, conduct agreements and joint exercises, they can work for stability. During Fan's visit, a pledge was made to reach a deal before Xi's trip on rules of behaviour for military aircraft and a framework signed on army-to-army communication. He expressed hope for a new relationship based on "mutual trust, cooperation, non-conflict and sustainability". This is essential to defuse tensions.