China’s military considers the United States “enemy-in-chief” and, as it has done for decades, maintains a shroud of secrecy around the PLA’s size, capabilities, and intentions. That much is clear from a recent paper written by the PLA’s deputy chief of the general staff, the number two military man in China, for the Study Times, the official newspaper of the Communist Party School.
“Enemy-in-chief”? Are relations really that bad? Do the American and Chinese militaries really see each other as enemies doomed to do battle eventually?
Recent events suggest not. “Since October, PLA officials have been treating their U.S. counterparts with relative warmth and openness, to the point that one shocked Pentagon official privately described it as a ‘love fest,'” writes John Garnaut in Foreign Policy. Even more promising are reports that General Fang Fenghui, the head of the PLA general staff, and his American counterpart, General Martin Dempsey, are talking: “China’s military is willing to strengthen its communications with the U.S. military to enhance mutual trust, handle differences properly, and deepen cooperation,” Fenghui told Dempsey last month.
Even an important Chinese military report, the national defense paper, published today, was remarkable for its calm and friendly tone. In a clear reference to the US, the report accuses “some country” of “strengthen[ing] its Asia-Pacific military alliances … and frequently mak[ing] the situation tenser.” But, in a markedly different tone than heated rhetoric from hawks in the PLA, the report urges “resistance” to Western “containment” of China. Previously, hawks have implored China to “strike first,” “prepare for conflict,” or, in a reference to the multiple neighboring countries embroiled in territorial disputes with China, to “kill a chicken to scare the monkeys.” The national defense paper was remarkably free of such antagonism.
It’s great to see the Chinese and American militaries opening new channels of communication and seeking to be more transparent about each other’s intentions and strategic goals. There are even hopeful signs that the US, Australian, and Chinese militaries might soon conduct joint exercises. These are steps in the right direction.