July 11, 2011 | 2014 GMT
U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen is in Beijing for talks with top leaders of the People’s Liberation Army. The United States and China have been able to smooth over some of the ruffles in their relationship lately, but as the recent tensions in the South China Sea show, there are fundamental differences strategically between the U.S. and China and those are only going to deepen in the coming months and years.
The United States and China are continuing a series of military-to-military negotiations that they began in late 2010 and early 2011 in an attempt to improve relations between the two states and clarify some of the differences that emerged between them as China rises in power in the region and the U.S. begins to shift strategically away from its commitments in the Middle East and South Asia.
Both sides have been eager to show that they are capable of cooperating and this trip was really good at highlighting that, with the addition of exercises between the two navies’ hospital ships, with the talk of holding a humanitarian assistance and disaster relief missions, and also the idea of holding counter-piracy drills together in the Gulf of Aden.
So there can be no denying that the recent visit is a success judging by the criteria of improving avenues of cooperation. What we don’t have, however, is a long-term foundation for a strategic agreement. The United States is facing the fact that China is a rising power in the region and, in particular, its maritime focus and naval power is increasing and that poses a threat to long-standing U.S. strategic goals of maintaining circumnavigation and naval dominance.
Meanwhile, despite all the U.S. denials that it is trying to contain China, China feels distinctly as if it is being contained. That involves not just the U.S. actions but all the players around China that have been more active in reaching out to the U.S. and calling for U.S. support. Because the US has made it clear that it is a permanent player in the region and that it is going to be getting more involved, China sees what is taking shape, and this prompted the Chinese on this recent visit to criticize the U.S. for conducting naval exercises with Japan and Australia as well as with the Philippines during a period of heightened tensions in South China Sea.
For China, there is a need to continue to buy time because it does not want to prematurely get involved in a confrontation with the United States. The U.S. also remains very much preoccupied with concerns abroad and is not quite ready to devote its full attention to Asia.
There is undeniably a trend of growing pressure between China, its neighbors and the U.S., and that is going to continue and it is not at all clear whether the mechanisms of cooperation that the U.S. and China are setting up now will be strong enough at that time to prevent confrontation or mistakes.