‘Habits of Cooperation’ - Former PACOM Chief Calls for U.S., Chinese Militaries To Work Together More
By WENDELL MINNICK, TAIPEI
When a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. EP-3 spy plane in 2001, the admiral at the head of U.S. Pacific Command was dismayed to discover that the two countries had not agreed on even the most basic procedures for cooperative maritime search-and-rescue operations.
This should not be the case, Dennis Blair, now retired from the Navy, said recently. The central problem, he said, is Taiwan.
“You can’t really have a normal military-military relationship like we have with other countries since you might end up shooting at each other tomorrow if the political decisions go that way,” he said. “That’s right in the middle of the relationship.”
Blair, who was here to lead a U.S. military delegation observing Taiwan’s annual Han Kuang military exercises, co-chairs a Council for Foreign Relations task force that recently released recommendations for better bilateral ties in a report, titled “U.S.-China Relations: An Affirmative Agenda, A Responsible Course.”
As PACOM chief from 1999 to 2002, Blair was frustrated by the state of military dialogue between the United States and China.
The Taiwan Issue
“When the underlying situation is fundamentally favorable to peace, it seems to me you should talk,” Blair said. “If a military conflict starts in the Taiwan Strait, both sides will be badly hurt economically, militarily and physically. There is going to be a lot of damage all around, and at the end of the day Taiwan is not going to be taken, and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] will be the greatest loser.”
Blair argues there are plenty of important issues beyond Taiwan that Beijing and Washington could work together on, starting with joint military exercises that would create “habits of cooperation” that help allay suspicions.
These could begin with search-and-rescue exercises, then add peacekeeping, humanitarian, anti-terrorism and anti-piracy exercises. Making China into a responsible strategic partner rather than a malicious aggressor nation would benefit everyone in Asia, he said.
“The path has been pretty well trod in relationships between sailors and soldiers around the world,” Blair said. “You start out at the tactical level with some very simple exercises, such as search and rescue. There are a whole lot of issues that we have common interests, such as combating terrorism and piracy, and humanitarian and peacekeeping missions.
“We can do all of those without giving up secrets, and the objective of that is developing habits of cooperation ... because fighting each other over Taiwan is a very low-probability event that we both hope will never happen.”
Much of the paranoia on the Chinese side stems from events such as the EP-3 incident and the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, but the most important factor is Taiwan.
Threat of Force
“China says it might use force under certain circumstances, and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is clearly making military preparations in case they have to,” Blair said. “U.S. policy under the Taiwan Relations Act is to oppose the use of force, and Pacific Command and U.S. military forces have a responsibility to make military preparations to do that. So the military forces on both sides are both getting ready to fight each other if necessary.”
This tension has made it difficult for Chinese and U.S. military officials to have a serious dialogue on anything other than Taiwan.
“When U.S. and Chinese military officers get together, there is this really big issue of Taiwan in the middle of the conversation,” Blair said. “I have these conversations with the Chinese in which they say Taiwanese splittism is the greatest threat to peace, but I tell them that Chinese impatience is also a pretty big threat to peace.”
He acknowledged that military officers who get together are “try-ing to get a feeling for what kind of a military opponent the other side will be. ... We might be shooting at each other soon. So what else do we have to talk about except that? And how do we talk about that without giving away secrets?
“The approach I try to take is to be honest about the military realities. The PLA cannot take Taiwan now, and if Taiwan keeps working on its skills and puts some resources into its defense budget and the U.S. keeps up military development, that military reality is not going to change ... We don’t need to impress each other about how tough we are on the Taiwan issue — let’s put this issue in a box and talk about other issues where we have common interests.”
Blair said U.S. hawks who call China the next evil empire and push for China-containment strategies are hurting, not helping, U.S. security interests.
“We don’t know what China’s future development is, and I don’t think that even the Chinese know,” he said. “We can make them into an enemy who will try to expand in any way they can ... and the way we do that is treat them like that now with the creation of a containment strategy on the lines of what was used to deal with the former Soviet Union. To say that China has grand ambitions in the world is simply completely premature and maybe wrong. You cannot conclude that they have this plan of building up their power to dominate Asia.”
Instead, Blair said, the United States should keep its military and economic strength while building alliances and other relationships — that means engaging with China’s military in a positive and open manner.
History of ‘Deception’
John Tkacik, senior research fellow in Asian studies at the Heritage Foundation, Washington, believes China has a long history of deception that should not be forgotten.
“We must remember that Chinese armies since the time of Sun Tzu in the fifth century B.C. have never put any stock in ‘confidence building’ — except as a deception tactic,” he said. “Chinese strategy relies on minimizing an adversary’s confidence. The PLA has not yet gotten to the point where they want to be predictable when dealing with the U.S. They like as much uncertainty as possible because it supports an overall military doctrine to leverage surprise and deception on the battlefield.”
Tkacik warned that China is taking advantage of wishful thinking at the Pentagon.
“If the Pentagon believes that, somehow, PLA ‘intentions’ will become more transparent simply because generals in Washington have shaken hands with a few generals in Beijing, they are delusional,” he said. “The Chinese army will improve mil-mil exchanges when they feel like it, but of course, they are happy to take any gifts the Pentagon or U.S. field commanders might offer.”
However, Larry Wortzel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said engagement with China is the right move.
“Admiral Blair has taken the right tone with his advice to Taiwan recently and with his comments to the U.S. government on military-to-military contacts with China,” Wortzel said. “The most important things that the United States should emphasize with China are contacts that aim at mutual threat reduction, confidence building on long-term intentions, and means of crisis management or crisis mitigation.
“What the U.S. must avoid are actions that make the People’s Liberation Army a more effective combat force, reveal weaknesses in our own military technology or capabilities, and avoid making the PLA a more effective force to further repress the Chinese people.”