The US and China have signed a rare agreement to strengthen ties and develop a more productive military relationship. However, mistrust still remains, with Beijing saying progress can only be made if Washington respects China’s South China Sea ambitions.
The understanding mainly concerns a deepening of cooperation between the two nations, following a meeting between Fan Changlong, the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission and US Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter.
Fan and US army Chief of Staff Raymond Odierno witnessed the signing of the dialogue understanding at the National Defense University in Washington, DC.
Washington and Beijing will look to collaborate over issues such as disaster response, peacekeeping, and counter-piracy, while there was even talk of the two countries conducting drills together in the future.
Guan Youfei, the director of foreign affairs from the Ministry of Defense mentioned that the two armies could hold joint land exercises next year, in what is the first document signed between the military forces of the US and China in years.
They also reaffirmed a commitment to reaching a consensus to the air-to-air annex before the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to the US in September. Carter says that that the annex will help to reduce the chance of misunderstandings or accidents between the two countries occurring, when aircraft are operating in close proximity.
Major General Yao Yunzhu, who is a senior researcher at the Chinese Academy of Military Science was also positive of the move, saying: "The annex on air-to-air encounters aims to prevent crises, while the dialogue mechanism between the armies mainly helps with cooperation," the China Daily publication reported.
Guan also added that the two sides could hold joint exercises, but the main aim would only be to see if the terms of the agreements were being implemented properly.
He added that China had been invited by the US to take part in the Rim of the Pacific Exercises, despite opposition from other participants. Beijing actually took part in the last holding of the biennale event in 2014, which included 22 participants and six observers.
However, despite all the perceived good will between Washington and Beijing, a lot of mistrust still remains between the two. During his visit to the US, Fan also urged Washington to reduce its military activities in the South China Sea, which has becoming a sticking point between the two nations.
Meanwhile, the US also brought up the point.
“Secretary Carter reiterated US concerns on the South China Sea, and called on China and all claimants to implement a lasting halt on land reclamation, cease further militarization, and pursue a peaceful resolution of territorial disputes in accordance with international law,” the Pentagon said in a statement, published on the Department of Defense website.
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The US is wary of China’s increasing presence in the contested region of the South China Sea near the Spratly Islands. Beijing claims sovereignty over the area in contradiction with several other nations, including key US allies in the region.
Supporting its presence in the region, China has reclaimed some 2,000 acres of land in the South China Sea over the last 18 months, converting submerged reefs and rocks into new islands on an industrial scale. Other players such as the Philippines and Vietnam did the same, although at a much slower pace.
The US has also slammed China after Beijing installed mobile artillery weapons on the disputed Spratly Islands.
“It creates an air of uncertainty in a system that has been based on certainty and agreed-upon norms,” Pentagon spokesman Brent Colburn said on May 29, according to Reuters. “So anything that steps outside of the bounds of international law we see as a concern because we don't know what the ... motivations are behind that. We think it should concern everyone in the region.”
For it’s part, China has accused the US of trying to “stir-up trouble” in the region.
"A few countries keep stirring up troubles in the South China Sea for (their) own selfish gains and provoking China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests, while there are some other people who incite them to do so," China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said as cited by AFP.
China countered the US accusations in a special report calling on Washington to “abandon its Cold War mentality.”
“By hyping up 'China's military threat and the lack of transparency in military strength,' the report questions China's normal defense building and strategic intention, and makes inappropriate remarks on China's justified actions of safeguarding territorial sovereignty and security interests in the South China Sea,” a statement from Chunying read.