MOUs: The Secret Sauce to Avoiding a U.S.-China Disaster?

MOUs: The Secret Sauce to Avoiding a U.S.-China Disaster?

The American and Chinese militaries have had some close calls and fatal encounters at sea and in the skies. The newly signed MOUs could help prevent future collisions.

Most discussion surrounding this notification requirement focuses on country-to-country advance reporting of major exercises. The specific terms of the agreement, however, are much broader. The term “activities” itself inherently captures much more than simply exercises, and the two sides undertook explicit obligations to exchange information related to “major official publications and statements” and regarding “adjustment of respective national defense policies and strategy.” These ambiguities are partly addressed in the annexes, which address “notification of major security policy and strategy developments” and “observation of military exercises and activities.” However, even these terms are not fully clarified in the document, leaving much to be addressed as each side begins to put the MOU’s terms into practice.

The genesis of the MOUs was a suggestion by President Xi Jinping to President Obama in June 2013 at Sunnylands that the two sides find ways to develop confidence-building measures to improve the military climate in East Asia and between the two powerful countries. The announcement of the MOUs at the two leaders’ next meeting at the APEC Summit, therefore, reflects a desire to demonstrate progress on earlier commitments, despite a military relationship that has been described as “rocky” in the wake of the P-8 Incident. As has been noted, it was this incident that prompted the talks to negotiate the two MOUs, but the fact that the incident occurred less than three months before the APEC Summit suggests there may have been political pressure to act quickly to recast the U.S.-China military relationship.

What are the implications of these MOUs for the U.S. Navy? It has been observed already that neither MOU seems to require any change in the day-to-day operations or activities of the U.S. Navy or any other operational military units. But there are potential implications nonetheless. For instance, these MOUs will be given life and meaning through the practice of government and military leaders. As practice accumulates, the interpretation of the activities that fall within the Notification MOU’s scope should be carefully structured. A clear distinction should be made between exercise activities and operational activities. Prior notification to China of the Navy’s “activities” should be kept to the narrowest definition that meets the requirements of the MOU, while also fully protecting the vital American interests in the Navy’s operational latitude.

Indeed, some Chinese officials appear to see the MOUs as an opportunity to bind the United States into a cooperative military relationship, while sufficient political will exists on this side of the Pacific to support one. On the sidelines of a recent conference, one Chinese academic stated that as a result of the 2014 Congressional elections, the U.S.-Chinese relationship could be on a downward slide into the 2016 presidential election, as partisan politics heat up. In this scholar’s view, the Chinese government’s objective in negotiating these MOUs was to bind the United States to a stable framework for military interactions. According to this view, the MOUs represent a hedge for the Chinese government against a potential American policy shift in a more assertive direction. While this is perhaps an unduly pessimistic view of the MOUs, it highlights the fact that China and the United States have enduring interests that are difficult, perhaps even impossible, to reconcile.

Next Steps

Because the United States and China have such different strategic interests, modest expectations should be set for what can be achieved in the short term. What will be the internal political dynamic in China regarding these MOUs? How will individual military units choose to behave, especially when nationalism is running high? Will there be PLA pushback and foot dragging? If so, these MOUs will need to be followed up with concrete American expectations of improved behavior or consequences for its failure—“impose[d] costs” as Patrick Cronin puts it. In the meantime, the United States will need to actively reassure our allies, partners and friends in East Asia that our attempts to build confidence into our relationship with China will not come at the expense of their interests. If that impression forms as these MOUs are interpreted in practice, American strategic interests will have been seriously weakened, rather than strengthened, as the MOUs intend.

In conclusion, the policy of attempting to build Chinese habits of adherence to rules of interaction at sea and communication about exercises and intentions is a positive step. But relations between powerful states are not so easily ordered. Sober-minded leaders will observe that while these MOUs help reduce the risk of crisis at sea, they will not eliminate it, because they do not eliminate the divergent security interests that are at the root of the crises. And even as they improve understanding, such insight is no replacement for respect for power. As powerful states, both sides will continue to have reasons to use tactical units assertively to achieve important national objectives—the U.S. reconnaissance operations in China’s EEZ and China’s use of full-spectrum maritime power to increase its control over its claimed islands and waters in the East and South China Seas are two prominent examples. For this reason, the powerful presence of the U.S. Navy in Asia, supported by strengthened allies, partners and friends, remains a surer guarantor or regional stability in the coming decades than political agreements based either on adherence to rules or improved relationships.

Peter A. Dutton is Professor and Director of the China Maritime Studies Institute at the U.S. Naval War College. He is also Adjunct Professor of Law at New York University and a Distinguished Fellow in the U.S.-Asia Law Institute there. His research focuses on the maritime disputes in East Asia and the regional and global implications of them.

Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0