Another Sign that U.S.-China Relations are Souring

As calls to take a harder line against China grow louder in Washington, expect the rhetoric coming out of the Pentagon to steer clear of any “new model of military-to-military relations.”

The 7th Round of the U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) concluded last month. Once again, the work of hundreds of senior officials and dozens of agencies produced a mountain of literature. China watchers are still parsing the 127 outcomes of the Strategic Track, but one important change seems to have slipped through the cracks. Unlike last year, the factsheet contains no reference to a “new model of U.S.-China military-to-military relations,” an offshoot of President Xi Jinping’s signature foreign policy concept, the “new type of great power relations (NTGPR).” In fact, a careful reading of recent Pentagon speeches and reports confirms this is no accidental omission. Despite some recent progress in areas of practical cooperation like the signing of an Army-to-Army Dialogue Mechanism Framework, Secretary Ashton Carter has systematically purged the term from the Defense Department’s engagement rhetoric. Exasperated with Beijing’s maritime assertiveness and cyber activities, views of China within the Pentagon—and Washington in general—are unmistakably hardening. Observers on both sides of the Pacific should take note of this latest sign of deepening strategic mistrust.

First introduced by then-Vice President Xi during a state visit in 2012, the NTGPR framework has since come to dominate Chinese public diplomacy towards the United States. Like the “China Dream” and “One Belt, One Road,” the “new model” of Sino-American relations occupies an important ideological space for the Party’s 5th generation leadership and is closely tied to Xi’s personal prestige. A big push for the United States to agree to the concept came in 2013, when President Obama pledged to foster “a new model of cooperation” at the informal Sunnylands summit. Despite U.S. concerns that the NTGPR’s calls for “no conflict, no confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation” might mean accommodating Chinese hegemony in Asia, the phrase quickly gained currency in other high-profile exchanges. At the 5th S&ED later that year, the two sides agreed to build “a new model of relations between the United States and China,” and Deputy Secretary of State William Burns spoke of “major powers looking to forge a new model of relations.” When the 6th S&ED was held in Beijing, senior Chinese officials invoked the NTGPR in nearly all of their public remarks. Secretary of State John Kerry was particularly eager to reciprocate, using the phrase more than half a dozen times. For the first (and last) time, the Strategic Track fact sheet at the 2014 meeting also committed the two nations to work towards “the development of a new model of U.S.-China military-to-military relations.”

Like the parent concept itself, it has never been clear what China exactly wants out of the new military to military (mil-to-mil) model. During an April 2013 visit by Joint Chiefs of Staff (JSC) Chairman General Martin Dempsey, PLA Deputy Chief of General Staff General Fang Fenghui called for “a new kind of military-to-military relationship...consistent with the state-to-state relationship.” At Sunnylands, Xi suggested the two sides “positively construct a new pattern of military relations compatible with the new pattern of relationship between the two great powers.” Under Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Pentagon seems to have endorsed the proposal. Hagel took pains to jointly unveil the framework with his Chinese counterparts during his April 2014 trip to Beijing. Matching the language of the PLA participant at the following month’s Shangri-La Dialogue, Hagel again ordered the Pentagon to forge ahead on the new model, and the concept featured very prominently in the 2014 Department of Defense (DOD) annual report to Congress on China. When the U.S. and China agreed to two important confidence building mechanisms last November, the text of both agreements contextualized this progress within the “development of a new model of U.S.-China military-to-military relations.”