Chinese think-tank urges more Sino-US military dialogue

A Chinese think-tank yesterday called for more communication between the militaries of the United States and China, urging both countries to use military relations as a "stabilising force".

In recent months, China and the US have clashed over a range of issues, from trade and the Covid-19 outbreak to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

The two sides' warships and fighter jets have come close to one another on several occasions, including in the South China Sea.

"The two countries need to focus on managing their differences and preventing conflict," China's National Institute for South China Sea Studies said in a report on the US military presence in the Asia-Pacific.

"They should keep current communication channels open, including the hotline between the two defence departments, the dialogue and consultation mechanisms participated in or chaired by the two defence departments and mutual visits by the two countries' military leaderships."

The report, its second since 2016, is aimed at promoting peace and stability across the Asia-Pacific region, said Dr Wu Shicun, the head of the Hainan-based institute, at a media briefing. This year's report struck a far more dovish tone than Beijing's recent rhetoric towards Washington after relations hit a new low in recent months.

Analysts have said a military conflict seems unlikely between the world's two largest economies and there are no signs either side would want one. But they noted increasing military encounters would mean a higher chance of miscalculation, which could lead to unintended consequences, especially since both militaries have a history of near-misses.

"If we don't communicate, the China-US relationship will become very childish," said government adviser Zhu Feng at the media briefing.

"We are both mature big powers and must not handle bilateral relations by criticising and attacking each other in an emotional way."

Since the US established the Indo-Pacific Command in 2018, there has not been any communication between both militaries, said Professor Zhu, who is also the dean of Nanjing University's Institute of International Studies.

He added that the situation in the South China Sea is far more serious than that in the Taiwan Strait, where tense encounters have also increased. Beijing sees self-ruling Taiwan as a renegade province that needs to be retaken by force if necessary.

While the South China Sea is a maritime frontier of sorts for Beijing, which is gradually pushing South-east Asian coastal states into compliance, Taiwan also sits on the waterway and occupies territory on it so the two issues cannot be easily separated, said IISS-Asia senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security Euan Graham. "Taiwan is a more emotive issue (than the South China Sea), since Beijing's starting point is that it is Chinese territory," he told The Straits Times.

Since the start of the year, the US has conducted at least four freedom of navigation operations in the waterway, where there are competing claims involving China, Brunei, the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia.

While the US is not a claimant, the waterway is a main thoroughfare for global trade. China, which claims about 90 per cent of the waterway, has reclaimed and built on several of the disputed reefs and islets, calling them civilian installations.

S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate research fellow James Char said Beijing is playing the "long game" exerting its sovereignty in the waterway while attempting to rewrite the narrative via reports such as those from the institute.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 24, 2020, with the headline Chinese think-tank urges more Sino-US military dialogue. Subscribe