By Zhao Minghao Source: Global Times Published: 2016-4-13
US Defense Secretary Ashton Carter recently scrubbed China in his visit to Asia citing a scheduling issue. Carter accepted an invitation to visit China last year when he was meeting his Chinese counterpart Chang Wanquan, during a meeting in Malaysia. Earlier in February, a meeting at the Pentagon that was scheduled between Carter and visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was also canceled.
Carter and the US military are obviously sending a message of their dissatisfaction over the South China Sea disputes. Unimpeded communication is more direly needed in the face of frictions. Carter`s moves are of no help in preventing China and the US slipping into bigger conflicts over the South China Sea.
Since the US President Barack Obama took office, discordant notes have been struck between the White House and the military. High-ranking US military officers including former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Chuck Hagel, after being relieved from their posts, vented out their pent-up grudges against the White House and poured criticism on Obama. Carter in the future might follow suit.
Looking deep into the US government, although there is no disagreement that the US should reinforce its efforts to counter China in the South China Sea, how to fulfill the goal has led to divergences. Carter, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph F. Dunford, Commander of the US Pacific Command Harry Harris and Chief of Naval Operations John M. Richardson have demanded muscle-flexing against China over the South China Sea disputes.
Harris, a Japanese-American admiral, in particular, serves as a vanguard in urging the Congress to act more aggressively in the South China Sea. In January, a US Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed within 12 nautical miles of Zhongjian Dao, part of the China-owned Xisha Islands without informing China, which was perceived by Beijing as "a serious political and military provocation."
Nonetheless, the US military wants to do more. In February, Harris bluntly accused China of militarizing the South China Sea in a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Conservative politicians like congressman Randy Forbes also praised military actions in the South China Sea to ramp up the US rebalance to the Asia Pacific strategy.
However, it should be noted that the policy divergences the Pentagon and White House hold over the South China Sea issue are an embodiment of their different understandings of China. In the minds of the military, with the US officially ending the Iraqi and Afghan wars, traditional security challenges posed by such powers as China, Russia and Iran are replacing terrorism as the biggest threats to the US national security.
For the US military, the "hybrid war" Moscow conducted in Ukraine and the challenges brought by Beijing in the South China Sea are unprecedented problems. The Pentagon is particularly concerned about China imitating Russia amid creating a Crimea-style conflict in the Asia-Pacific region. In November last year at the Reagan National Defense Forum, Carter said that the Pentagon was doing a range of things, some overt and some covert, to push back on Russian and Chinese "aggression."
It`s worrying that the grip of the White House on the Pentagon may become weaker. Less than a year is left before Obama`s term ends, and the authority of the White House is waning. The price the military will have to pay if they disregard or circumvent Obama`s orders is getting smaller. For instance, when the White House was endeavoring to amend ties with the Kremlin, the Pentagon insisted on offering weapons to Ukraine.
Besides, the US presidential campaign is in full swing. "China-bashing" is a tactic favored by all candidates. Showing a tougher stand on the South China Sea issue at this moment can please more voters.
Under such circumstances, concerns are running high as to whether an armed conflict will erupt between China and the US. Some even predicted a military confrontation is due in the latter half of this year. Undoubtedly, this would be a disaster for everyone. The global order is ramshackle due to numerous threats, and if China and the US are locked into a war, the foundations at global stability will be ruined. As David M. Lampton, a professor of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, has said, the South China Sea issue may escalate the Sino-US strategic drift, reflected by the deepening mutual suspicion, and the US shifting its focus from hedging to deterrence in its China policy.
Carter needs to keep close contacts with the Chinese military officers and diplomatic officials rather than avoiding meeting them. Even an unpleasant meeting is better than no communication. China should give a thorough analysis of Washington`s concerns in the South China Sea, trying to avoid a hostile downward spiral between both countries.
The author is a research fellow at the Charhar Institute and an adjunct fellow at the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China.