Recognizing that the United States and China have more areas of convergence than differences, the top U.S. officer in the Pacific said he’s more convinced after his recent visit there that the two countries can build on common ground as they strive to get their military-to-military relationship back on track.
Navy Adm. Samuel J. Locklear III spent four days in China in late June, meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Lian Guanglie of the Central Military Commission, Gen. Ma Ziaotian, deputy chief of the general staff, and other senior military leaders.
The visit was the first for a U.S. Pacific Command chief in four years, representing what Locklear said he hopes will be a new start in what he conceded has been an “on-again, off-again” relationship between the two militaries.
China abruptly severed ties in early 2010 over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, and the military-to-military relationship has slowly resumed since 2011.
As he took the helm at Pacom in April, Locklear said he would make restoring the relationship a top priority.
“Both nations realize that it’s not in the best interests of anyone in the world for the U.S. and China not to have a favorable relationship with each other, and that good military-to-military relations [are] critical to that,” he said.
Speaking to American Forces Press Service during a flight to Australia, Locklear called the visit to China an initial step in the right direction. “You can’t have a relationship with somebody you don’t talk to,” he said. “So you have to start with that. And then you have to have a frank dialogue. And I think the Chinese, like Americans, appreciate frank dialogue. So when you tell them how you see it, and they tell you how they see it, then at least you know where you are starting from.”
Locklear said he explained the renewed U.S. focus on Asia and the Pacific, a cornerstone of the new U.S. strategic guidance, and emphasized that it in no way intends to “contain” China.
“I outlined the Asia-Pacific rebalance so they could understand what we are doing and why we are doing it,” he said of his address to students and cadre at the China Academy of Military Science. “And I pointed out to them that this is about trying to provide a security environment with our allies and … our strategic partners and our emerging partners that is good for everyone.”
Locklear said he told the Chinese that they should have not only a role in that security environment, but “a productive role in it.”
China faces decisions about how it will enter into that security environment, he said. Meanwhile, the United States, along with its allies and partners, will have to determine how they engage with China in that environment.
“So there is a responsibility on both sides,” the admiral said. “And we have a couple of options – not just us, but our allies and partners. We can encourage China to make good decisions. Or we can make it difficult for them to make good decisions, and then we have to live with the outcome.”
While underscoring the importance of positive relations between the two countries, Locklear said he made clear during his visit that the lack of transparency about China’s military buildup and the motivation behind it troubles the United States and many other regional nations.
“What we are all concerned about is miscalculation,” the admiral said, calling military-to-military engagements a way to help in clarifying intentions and preventing conflict.
“Neither government, nor do I think any of our allies or our partners, want to have a conflict between China and the United States,” he said. “It just doesn’t make any sense.”
Working through areas of disagreement will take time, he acknowledged, expressing hope that it can be done in a way that “prevents miscalculation and prevents unnecessary confrontation that is not good for anybody.”
Locklear said he and his Chinese hosts addressed several areas of contention, including China’s claims over the South China Sea. “That whole area is a small backyard, and it is owned by a lot of people, and they don’t all agree where the fence lines are,” he said. The United States has not taken sides in the territorial dispute there, but firmly believes that “whatever happens in that part of the world has to be resolved peacefully and without coercion,” he added.
What the United States takes issue with, he said, are China’s maritime claims that would hinder freedom of trade and movement through international waters.
“This is a place where we diverge, and [that] has caused difficulties,” Locklear said. “So we have to keep working with [China] on that and we have to keep working to ensure that as we disagree on that, it doesn’t lead to miscalculation that drives us in a direction we don’t want to go.”
His talks in China also extended to another area of contention: arms sales to Taiwan. The United States supports the “one-China policy,” he said, but also is committed to ensuring that Taiwan has a “minimum credible deterrence.”
Locklear expressed hope that the United States and China can look beyond these issues and focus on common interests as they forge a more positive path in their relationship.
“It is in all our best interests to figure out how to do this together,” he said. “As China emerges as a regional power and maybe eventually a global economic power, the question is how do we … help them do so in a positive way that promotes regional security and prosperity?”