The main impediments to improved Chinese-US defence diplomacy remain fundamentally unchanged. Ultimately, the problem is that the two countries are currently rivals for influence in Asia and potentially adversaries for regional hegemony. Bilateral defence ties are unlikely to improve as long as the underlying security relationship between both countries remains so confrontational. As a result, the key outputs—limited transparency, transactional haggling over exchanges, and conditional, confrontational, and easily disrupted engagement—will persist.

The PLA’s growing strength is aggravating these difficulties. China’s growing capacity for and interest in conducting global security operations might enhance international peace and security since the Chinese military can provide more soldiers to UN peacekeeping operations and dispatch warships to counter threats to maritime commerce such as other piracy threats. Unfortunately, the expanding global reach of the Chinese armed forces also increases opportunities for further Chinese-American military clashes, whether due to accidents, miscalculation, or other causes.

At the end of the PLA’s increasing capabilities are emboldening it to more directly challenge US military policies—such as the air and maritime surveillance activities—that it has long opposed but had to put up with. This being the case, confidence-building measures will have little effect. Why? Because the problem the two countries face isn’t the risk of accidental clashes due to misunderstandings. It’s the fundamental disagreement of principle between Beijing’s expanding notion of national sovereignty and the Pentagon’s insistence on freedom of movement in the global commons.

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