Chinese and American officials recognize the importance of good, uninterrupted military-to-military relations, and the commander of U.S. Pacific Command will do what he can to further that goal.
Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III spoke about his new command and the importance he places in building the U.S. military relationship with China during a recent interview.
“The last thing you want to have is miscalculation between large militaries,” the admiral said. “You want diplomacy to work. Militaries should only come into play when diplomacy fails, and then they should work hard to get you back into a diplomatic dialogue where real peace lies.”
The U.S.-China military relationship has been rocky. China broke off military-to-military relations with the United States in January 2010, when the United States announced it would sell arms to Taiwan. For months, military relations were frozen, then they slowly warmed. In 2011, the military-to-military relationship resumed. Then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates stressed that it was particularly in times of stress between the nations that such ties were important.
Gates visited China in January 2011, and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liang Guanglie, just finished a visit to the United States. The visit went forward even as arms sales to Taiwan again hit the news.
Chinese government officials face many decisions as the country moves forward. The nation has had stupendous growth over the past 30 years, and year-to-year growth in gross domestic product remains high. The Chinese army is benefiting from the booming economy, and Chinese officials are modernizing the military.
“They are an emerging power, and we are a mature power,” Locklear said. “How they emerge, and how we encourage them will be an important key to both China and the United States.”
The Chinese have many choices to make, and better military-to-military communications will allow both nations to understand why officials are making these choices. All this is “for the good of the global security environment,” Locklear said.
The on-again, off-again nature of communications between the militaries doesn’t help. “I think we may be reaching a turning point in that,” he said. “Both nations realize that it’s not in the best interests of anyone in the world for the U.S. and China to not have a favorable relationship with each other, and that good military-to-military relations [are] critical to that.”
Military-to-military contacts are one way to build trust between the nations, the admiral said. “You learn to operate together, you learn to cooperate, you learn about each other’s families — you get a personal view of each other.” So when things happen, he added, commanders can reach out to one another.
Sometimes it’s impossible for capitals to talk to each other, the admiral said, and military commanders, with these types of contacts, sometimes can calm things down a bit.
Locklear had just returned from a visit to Beijing, and said he came away encouraged by the progress. “I’m hopeful that we can continue to have a dialogue and just talk together,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.”
The United States and its closest allies don’t agree on everything, he noted. “But I do believe we should not allow those disagreements prevent us from understanding each other in the places that we can, and allow us to control our appetite for disagreement,” he said.
The South China Sea is an area of contention, with China, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Taiwan, Brunei, Malaysia and Cambodia asserting jurisdiction in various parts of the waterway, which covers an area from Singapore to Taiwan.
“The United States doesn’t take sides on competing territorial claims,” Locklear said. “But we have an opinion on how we want those disputes to be resolved. First, we want them resolved by peaceful means and in accordance with customary law and by the things like the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. There are ways to deal with this.”
Additionally, the United States calls upon all claimants to clarify their claims.
The South China Sea is crucial to trade in the region and with the United States. Half of the trade for the United States flows through the region. Almost all of the oil for China and Japan flow through the waterway.
There are competing claims to islands and seamounts in the sea, and how this plays out is of concern to the United States. “The way to deal with this is to settle in a forum where there can be as much win-win as possible,” the admiral said. “But we want it done in a peaceful environment and we don’t want a heavy hand from any side to enforce the process.”
While not taking sides, the United States has a national interest in the freedom of the seas — including the South China Sea — and has consistently opposed excessive maritime claims. U.S. forces will continue to preserve the rights, freedoms and uses of the sea guaranteed to all nations by conducting freedom of navigation missions in the area.
While China is important to the U.S. strategy in the region, Locklear said, Korea is one area that keeps him awake at night. North Korea has a new leader, and more than half the population survives on fewer than 800 calories a day. The regime spent an inordinate amount of money to try to launch an ICBM, and there are rumblings that North Korea may continue to develop nuclear weapons. With the money that North Korea spent on its failed missile, “you could have fed 20 million people for one year,” the admiral said.
Transnational threats also are a growing concern. Locklear said the cyber threat is the greatest transnational threat in the region, followed by terrorism. U.S. Pacific Command has an office dedicated to protecting its own networks and working with allies to combat cyber attacks. Locklear said he wants regional and international organizations to work together to define the rules of the Internet road.
“In the area of violent terror organizations, we are seeing … a transition,” the admiral said. “In the terror world, as you squeeze on one side of the balloon, it pops out somewhere else. Terrorists look for areas to exploit.”
Terror groups are drawn to areas where people are disenfranchised and poor. “We’re seeing more of that in some areas of Asia and we are going to have to adapt our forces to deal with that,” Locklear said. “But in the long run, I think the solution is prosperity, and a general sense of security that makes it so these terror networks can’t survive.”
But the bottom line, the admiral said, is that the American people have to understand that the United States is a Pacific nation, with national interests that must be secured.
“For six decades, the U.S. military presence in the Asia-Pacific has provided the security infrastructure that basically underpins the prosperity in the region,” he added. “This will continue.”