Trade war hostility may be keeping US-China military relations in a state of friction

Key Points
  • U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis met Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of an Asian security summit in Singapore on Thursday.
  • The hour-and-a-half discussion was aimed at improving ties amid recent trade and diplomatic hostilities.
  • But military ties could remain weak until both countries resolve their economic and political differences, according to defense strategists.
US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis with his Chinese counterpart General Wei Fenghe during a meeting on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations security summit in Singapore on October 18, 2018. 

Military ties between the world's two largest economies could remain at a deadlock until both parties make progress on thorny political and economic issues, strategists predict.

In an effort to ease diplomatic hostilities that spiked following U.S. Vice President Mike Pence's sharp critique of Beijing earlier this month, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis met Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe on the sidelines of an Asian security summit in Singapore on Thursday.

No new agreements were announced, but Chinese media reported that both sides agreed to deepen trust during the hour-and-a-half discussion. Mattis and Wei also discussed an existing invitation for Wei to visit Washington, the Associated Press reported.

However, it's unclear whether talks can meaningfully improve military links, which have suffered as the trade war spills over into other aspects of the U.S.-China relationship.

"Substantive issues will need to be addressed before the U.S. and China can continue military dialogue," said Alexander Neill, senior fellow for Asia-Pacific security at The International Institute for Strategic Studies. "Traditionally, military ties lag behind other areas of the bilateral relationship so I don't think any progress can be made until the trade war and other economic issues get sorted out."

The two superpowers have already scaled down several high-level security engagements amid ongoing trade concerns.

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Mattis, apparently displeased with Beijing's military buildup in the disputed South China Sea, disinvited the Chinese military from a multinational naval exercise in May. And in September, a senior Chinese naval commander canceled a planned visit to meet with his American counterpart while a U.S Navy ship was denied a port visit in Hong Kong. The same month also saw Beijing postpone joint talks after the White House sanctioned a Chinese military agency and its director for buying Russian weapons.

Military dialogue can help "a bit" but "neither side is going to make a major move right now because of the basic balance of forces," said Michael J.Green, senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University's school of foreign service.

Despite defense being one of the more stable and predictable parts of the bilateral relationship, "the downward trend is likely to continue," added Green, a former senior Asia director at the U.S. National Security Council.

Amid that impasse, Beijing may intensify its responses to the United States' so-called freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea.

On October 1, the U.S. Pacific Fleet announced that a Chinese warship almost struck a U.S. destroyer that was near the disputed Spratly Islands. Beijing takes issue with U.S. naval patrols in the area, claiming America's presence there violates China's sovereignty. Navigation operations, however, are considered essential to Washington's Indo-Pacific strategy.

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More risky encounters between U.S. and Chinese ships can be expected going forward, especially as Beijing's military assets in the South China Sea near operational capacity, according to Neill.

Thankfully, differences in technological capability are likely to keep at bay the specter of full-blown conflict.

"The People's Liberation Army itself calculates it is 15 years behind the U.S. so this is not a window where China would have the confidence that it can get what it wants by direct military confrontation," said Green.

Foreign policy pressures over Taiwan are also weighing on the military relationship. The world's largest economy has been cozying up to Taipei, bolstering arms sales to the self-ruled island in a move that's increased Beijing's anger.

Both sides seem determined to defend their respective 'core national interests' on sensitive matters such as the South China Sea and Taiwan, said Chengxin Pan, associate professor at Deakin University. Their respective interests, however, appear incompatible, which doesn't bode well for bilateral relations, Pan continued.