Amid South China Sea tensions, what will the meeting between the US and China’s defence chiefs yield?

  • Mark J. Valencia says the meeting could establish ground rules for what could prove to be a stormy period for US-China relations ahead
  • The Chinese defence minister will also be looking to understand how entrenched and widespread anti-China sentiment is in the US government
PUBLISHED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 3:01am
UPDATED : Thursday, 01 November, 2018, 3:30am

Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe will be in Washington this week to meet with US Defence Secretary James Mattis. What are they likely to discuss – or rather, what does Wei want?

Let’s look at the recent context. One meeting between the two in Beijing was cancelled amid rising tensions between their militaries, particularly in the South China Sea.

The two have since met but no agreements have been announced. Mattis continues to reassure the public by saying their “strategic competition does not imply hostility”, but he also added, “We will not surrender freedom of navigation”. This indicates that the US will not back off from its confrontational approach to China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Even on the heels of a near collision between the USS Decatur and a Chinese warship, the US Navy is considering a major show of force over several days in the Taiwan Strait, apparently an implementation of a more aggressive US policy towards China in the South China Sea. The first indication of this new policy surfaced on May 3 when the White House announced that there would be “near-term and long-term consequences” for China’s “militarisation” there.

The Pentagon then rescinded its invitation to China to participate in the 2018 Rim of the Pacific exercises because “China’s behaviour [in the South China Sea] is inconsistent with the principles and purposes of the [Rimpac] exercise”.

In June, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Mattis warned China that the rescinding of the invitation was a “relatively small consequence” and that “there are much larger consequences in the future.” On October 4, US Vice-President Mike Pence gave a speech criticising China across the board and highlighting the USS Decatur incident. More threateningly, the US has stepped up its nuclear-capable B-52 flights over the East and South China seas.

Watch: US and China military leaders meet for South China Sea talks

China has responded in kind. In May, nuclear-capable Chinese bombers landed at Woody Island in the Paracels, which an air force statement said was training to improve its ability to “reach all territory, conduct strikes at any time and strike in all directions” and prepare for “the battle for the South China Sea”.

Military-to-military relations can be a stabilising force when relations in other spheres break down

China also undertook major naval and air exercises in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, including a live-fire exercise in the East China Sea that some saw as a warning to Taiwan, Japan and the US. China’s physical challenge to the USS Decatur may have been the result of a Chinese policy decision to increase the risk and potential cost of such encounters.

In September, China cancelled a meeting between its naval chief and his American counterpart in the US and postponed a planned military dialogue between Mattis and Wei. China also refused permission for a US navy warship to make a port call in Hong Kong.

Military-to-military relations are perhaps the most significant dimension of US-China relations because they can be a stabilising force when relations in other spheres break down.

Randall Schriver, a top Pentagon official for Asia, says such “high level talks are especially valuable during times of tension”, noting that in June President Xi Jinping called the US-China military relationship the “model component of our overall bilateral relations”.

Given the worsening political and diplomatic relations between the two countries, the upcoming meeting could be critical in setting the tone for the near future.

Watch: Photos show near-collision between US and Chinese warships

So what does Wei want? First, he will want to discern whether Mattis is leaving the administration. Mattis is respected as a level-headed, wise and steadying influence on the more radical and unpredictable elements in the Trump administration. If Mattis’ departure is imminent, Wei would want to know if it is due to such differences, and who is likely to replace him.

Also, he would want to determine how firm and widespread in the upper echelons of the government the support for a more confrontational policy towards China is – and how that is likely to play out politically and militarily.

US, Taiwan military ties closer than ever as Trump challenges Beijing

Perhaps most important, he would want to assess the US attitude towards their on again-off again military-to-military relations. Does the US want them to continue as such, or to suspend them all together?

Finally, he would want to reaffirm how the two militaries can communicate if and when the situation really sours.

Acknowledgement by the two military leaders that their countries may be on the verge of a cold war could actually be positive in terms of avoiding unintended and unnecessary conflicts.

It could address the tense situation in the South China Sea where the US insists on its freedom of navigation operations and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance probes, which China considers threatening and may increasingly confront.

When the militaries of the US and the Soviet Union found themselves in such a situation, they agreed on a code of conduct regarding encounters between their warships and aircraft at sea. The Incidents at Sea agreement was successful in avoiding such encounters and if they did occur, preventing their escalation.

It is basically an agreement on communication and manoeuvring protocols. Although such an agreement will not prevent purposeful confrontations, perhaps China and the US will discuss each other’s intentions regarding such and how to mitigate them.

While the international community hopes the meeting will lead to some tension-lowering agreements or at least public statements from both, it may well be disappointed.

Instead, this meeting of military leaders will probably try to establish the ground rules for what may prove to be a very difficult and dangerous period for US-China relations, especially between their militaries.

Mark J. Valencia is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies, Haikou, China