Secretary of Defense Leon Pannetta announced on Thursday that the United States Navy will be inviting China to a series of Pacific naval exercises in 2014.
These exercises, which take place biannually, involve up to 22 nations. The announcement comes in the wake of joint counterpiracy operations conducted by the two nations last week in the Gulf of Aden. Proposals for joint peacekeeping operations were discussed as well.
Referring to the ongoing conflict between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands, known as Diaoyu Islands in China, Panetta pleaded for international cooperation, specifically in areas of maritime disputes.
The United States have the delicate role of a geopolitical balancer to perform in East Asia.
On the one hand, it has to appear a credible ally for Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. On the other, it has to avoid damaging its relations with China up to a point that would require the use of American military power in order to deter threats.
On his East Asia trip, Panetta first reaffirmed American commitment to Japanese security, then traveled to Beijing to reassure the Chinese on the nature of his intervention. China understands that the Americans will abide by the defense pacts that allow them to maintain staging areas in the region and be in a position to protect their interests. These interests may collide with China’s but China is not yet in a position to attempt to challenge them through the “access denial” strategy that it is said to be planning.
In Japan, Panetta’s visit can be seen in two ways. It may be positive in defusing an unnecessary crisis that damages the economic relationship between China and Japan but American overtures to the former, including the invitation for joint military exercises, can be interpreted in Japan as a less than wholehearted commitment to its national interests.
From the American and Chinese point of view, the possibility of joint exercises signifies cooperation while reaffirming present American dominance in the region. The maneuvers would be less necessary practice and more a show of strength and permanence; that the United States are shifting their focus to the Pacific and intend to stay there.
The Chinese, for their part, notably showed Panetta one of their submarines and an advanced frigate in the northeastern port city of Qingdao — directly opposite South Korea and Japan.
Wikistrat Bottom Lines
Closer ties between the American and Chinese defense establishments could significantly contribute to the stability of the region and alleviate the security dilemma of the countries through delicate moves in defense diplomacy.
Increased military cooperation via exercises can decrease the possibility of conflict between the two countries while increasing the effectiveness of their partnership in the region.
The Japanese may feel insecure about the American commitment to their security, something that could create further problems for the American forces stationed in the country.
The Chinese play the “good guy” to the Americans in order to increase Japanese insecurity.
Increased military cooperation between China and the United States could give away any weaknesses that may be exploited in the event of any conflict, diplomatic or otherwise.
The strength of the United States Navy after budget cuts as it would affect its deterrent credibility and ability to project power.
The domestic stability in China and Japan as motive toward pursuing nationalist policies and agendas.
Caitlin Barthold, Ryan Burkhart, Solomon Chang, Thomas Frear, Lawson Ferguson, Zacharias Michas, Joshua Rand-Castillo, Jared Sterk, Christoph Unrast contributed to this analysis.