Describing his approach to dealings with the Soviet Union near the end of the Cold War, President Reagan famously warned, “Trust, but verify.”
A version of that wise caution should be used in dealing with the increasing efforts by the Chinese Navy to cultivate more cooperative military relationships, particularly in seeking greater access to U.S. aircraft carriers: “Cooperate, but very cautiously!”
China’s navy chief, Adm. Wu Shengli recently urged his counterpart U.S. Admiral Jonathon W. Greenert to bring the USS George Washington, an aircraft carrier based in Japan, to a mainland Chinese port and allow the crew of the newly commissioned Chinese carrier to take a tour. Asked for his reaction to that request, Admiral Greenert replied, “I’m receptive to that idea.”
Excuse me, but not so fast, Admiral. Let’s go slow on exploring cooperation with the Chinese navy.
To be sure, there are considerable advantages to an increasingly cooperative relationship on a military-to-military basis with other nations. Those kind of relationships have been developed by the Navy Department over the years with NATO allies, SEATO nations, and other naval forces around the globe. But our relationship with the Chinese Navy is a vastly different situation that requires extreme caution and finely tuned diplomacy. In dealing with China on the naval operational level, our Navy brass is walking a high wire without a net.
Needless to say, China’s massive increase in domestic defense spending and new emphasis on building a modern navy has enormous implications for security and stability in Asia and a direct impact on our important allies in the region. China’s navy is still maturing and the longer it takes for China to gain a true blue water capability the more “soft power” time the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Command (PACOM) will have to influence current and future leaders in China to be more open and honest about their true intentions.
To maintain stability in the Pacific rim, PACOM has an interest in retarding China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) modernization and professionalization. Yet at the same time, PACOM should engage with the PLAN where possible to build trust and relationships that can positively influence the trajectory of China’s rise in directions favorable to the United States. It would be a grave mistake to treat China as an enemy and stop all cooperation.
By the same token, it would be extremely imprudent to take any steps that could advance the development of China’s blue water fleet and naval footprint in the region. Military cooperation with China should be limited to only those activities that do not present China with insights that will enable its PLAN to mature at a quicker pace. A proper level of cooperation should be designed to reduce misunderstanding and prevent miscalculations in international waters, not to share technology, training, or tactical planning.
In short, a careful balance must be struck between the laudable goal of increased cooperation and understanding between Chinese naval forces and the U.S. Navy, while avoiding any acceleration of China’s military footprint and influence in the Pacific.
Striking this balance will require that all military contacts at the working level when PACOM forces are training, operating at sea, or in an exercise be minimized. This includes prohibiting any access to command and control, intelligence, or joint exercises — in short, no visits to U.S. aircraft carriers. Period!
U.S. Navy leadership should continue high level PACOM military officer and civilian exchanges with China to help foster cooperation and understanding. However, Chinese leadership access to U.S. naval platforms, technology, and operations should be prohibited or strictly limited.
The stakes in this international military diplomacy couldn’t be higher. The future of U.S. interests in the Pacific and the security of our allies in the Pacific rim area hang in the balance. No doubt, Admiral Greenert will proceed cautiously with regard to Admiral Wu’s request to tour our nuclear aircraft carriers. To do otherwise would be a monumental miscalculation that could have dire national security implications for generations to come.
(Mr. Skoning served as an officer on an aircraft carrier in the Vietnam era.)