Easing China's concerns over the Pentagon's strategic "pivot" to the Asia-Pacific is high on the agenda of Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during his visit to Beijing this week for the highest-level military talks between the two superpowers in two years.
It is a concerted campaign to win hearts and minds, and in that regard, General Dempsey has much with which to contend.
After a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military is wagering that a focus on the other side of the globe is a better use of its resources. Senior US defense officials insist that this move is in no way a reaction to China’s ascendant military might.
China, on the other hand, sees it differently – namely, as a bit of an incursion on its turf.
A white paper released earlier this month by China’s People's Liberation Army warns ominously, if elliptically, that “some countries are strengthening their Asia-Pacific military alliances, expanding military presence in the region, and frequently making the situation there tenser.”
It is clear to Pentagon officials that “some countries” means the United States.
Indications this week are that Dempsey is making some headway in his quest to deepen military-to-military relations with his Chinese counterpart, which has long been a goal of US defense officials.
At a press conference, Dempsey’s counterpart, Gen. Fang Fenghui, allowed that “the Pacific Ocean is wide enough to accommodate us both” and that a couple of realistic goals for the two nations might include “to respect each other’s co-interest” in the region and to “avoid vicious competition, friction, or even confrontation in this area.”
Senior US military officials say they also made progress laying groundwork for more open communication between the two militaries and began developing “rules of behavior” meant to “prevent or minimize misunderstandings or accidents when US and Chinese military forces operate in proximity to one another.”
Tensions remain, however. “We all know about your rebalance strategy,” a Chinese reporter told Dempsey during Monday’s press conference. “We cannot help but notice the frequent joint military exercises in the vicinity of China.”
Such concerns within China are “probably the core of why I made this visit,” Dempsey said.
But even as the United States endeavors to deepen its military ties with China, Dempsey pointedly stressed that it will do that only “in the context of some of our other historic and enduring alliances.”
This was Dempsey’s own reference to the US relationship with Asia-Pacific allies such as Taiwan, a recipient of US arms that the US is committed to defend and that China claims as its own.
There will be points at which these historical US alliances cause “friction,” he added, “and we’ll have to review those.”