It has become a ritual in Washington to "restart" military exchanges with China. Regular contact has been suspended a number of times over the past two decades and each new cancellation sparks a round of worrying over the causes of the rift.
It's time to accept the continued, deep-seated mutual distrust China and the United States hold toward each other. Reducing expectations from these military ties will lead to a more mature relationship and one in which the United States begins a serious debate about how to define and protect its interests in the coming decades.
Both China and America have canceled scheduled meetings and exchanges numerous times over the years. The latest freeze lasted for 18 months, beginning in January 2010 over proposed arms sales to Taiwan, and fully ending this week with the visit of Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, to China. The roster of incidents that have caused cancellations reads like a list of persistent diplomatic sore spots: the Tiananmen massacre, Chinese harassment of U.S. reconnaissance planes, and the accidental 1999 U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade.
The main irritant, however, is Taiwan. America's continued support for Taiwanese security remains a major lever with which Beijing attempts to pressure Washington. Any mooted sale of advanced weaponry to Taiwan results in a rupture in military and sometimes political ties. Only with the Obama Administration making clear its opposition to such sales in the past month did the Mullen visit get approval.
One would then think that ties should have warmed since then. Yet another major irritant has since been introduced into the relationship: the South China Sea. Months of fencing over China's increased rhetoric and assertive presence in the waters of Southeast Asia have resulted in no common ground. Indeed, during Adm. Mullen's visit, the Chinese defense minister led off his public remarks with a criticism of recent U.S. naval exercises with its longtime ally, the Philippines, and an assertion that the U.S. should spend less on its military.
The Obama Administration is right in going ahead with such exercises, and with ones planned with Vietnam this month as well. China's actions and rhetoric over the past couple of years have shown that its primary goal is to carve out as much freedom of action for itself in maritime Asia as possible. While this in itself is not threatening, the uses to which China has put its increased freedom of action are. These include unreserved backing for its civilian fishing fleet in contested waters, harassment of other nations' fishermen and pressure on smaller states to compromise exploration of their claimed waters. What Beijing chooses to ignore is the world's reaction to a growing nation's willingness to use its new power to press its claims.
Washington's response to this new attitude remains inconsistent. While the Obama Administration has taken a firmer stand since Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's assertion last year of U.S. interest in a peaceful resolution of the territorial spats in the South China Sea, other U.S. rhetoric seems divorced from the reality of the chasm separating China and America.
Adm. Mullen repeated the timeworn invocation that Beijing and Washington should work together on "broader, and common, goals" on the global stage, after asserting that China was now a world power. Yet years of diplomatic and military outreach have resulted in no common ground on Sudan, North Korea, Burma, Iran, Taiwan, or maritime territorial claims.
While the heads of the U.S. and Chinese militaries can finally talk on a dedicated phone line, no progress has been made in reaching agreement on maritime rules of the road, such as an "incidents at sea" pact. Beijing continues to warn nations large and small not to tread on China's interests.
The Chinese explain away such differences by claiming that theirs is still a developing nation, focused on domestic growth. Americans assure themselves that it is because China is a rising power, and is starting to feel its oats, not unlike Wilhelmine Germany in the early years of the 20th century. Both of these explanations are true.
But the real reason for Sino-U.S. discord is simple: The two countries are rivals for influence and power in Asia, and increasingly the world. The difference today is that Washington has begun to take a more realistic approach to China's continued probing of America's strength and will, so as to define and defend its interests.
This is a good thing. Washington, along with its allies and partners, needs to make clear that China's actions are destabilizing. They need to assert that they will protect their interests through careful nurturing of national defensive capabilities, even as they seek to resolve outstanding differences with China. Maintaining credible military forces sends a stronger message than a hundred diplomatic communiqués. But even as we continue to commit millions in resources to the Asia-Pacific, we should nonetheless continue to push for military exchanges, not least as a way to learn what we can about the capabilities of Chinese forces.
The greatest danger to stability in Asia comes from the possibility of miscalculation. Red lines should be openly discussed so that no party is ignorant of the issues that may cause conflict. Yet all this is easier said than done. Even after two decades of enhanced relations, the gap between China and the U.S. is still large and not likely to be resolved soon.
China shows no likelihood of moderating its claims, but Washington can at least try to help moderate its behavior. This can be done through keeping up America's forward presence in Asia, enhancing its ability to operate at global distances from the continental U.S., and working with its Asian partners to help them defend themselves. That may be the best way of someday reaching a balanced working relationship with a China more willing to behave as a responsible global player.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.