Amid growing tensions between the United States and China in regions like the South China Sea, the two nations signed an agreement on Tuesday intended to improve communications between the two naval powers.

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopped in China as a part of a Pacific tour that included a visit to Hawaii to meet with PACOM Commander Admiral Harry Harris, and will continue with meetings allied nations South Korea and Japan.  During his stay in China, Dunford met with Gen. Fang Fenghui, the senior military leader for China’s People Liberation Party, and the two put pen to paper to make the new communications agreement official.

“The agreement is intended for crisis mitigation,” a Defense Department press release said.  Ensuring there is a quick method of direct communication between military leaders in the region will enable both nations the opportunity to move quickly to dispel miscommunications or seemingly aggressive behavior with benign intent.  In short, this new communications agreement does not call for military cooperation, so much as it permits a channel for explanation and warning.

This type of agreement is not only important in the South China Sea, where China’s aggressive expansion and claims of sovereignty have earned them the ire of most nations that share coastline with the waterway.  Two weeks ago, China forced Vietnam to give up their oil drilling platforms off the coast of their own nation, as they fell within China’s ever growing claims of ownership.  In response, Vietnam signed a defense agreement with the United States last week, the first such diplomatic measure since the end of the Vietnam war, some 40-plus years ago.

The United States maintains a similar communication agreement with another of its diplomatic competitors, Russia, which could be argued has been either instrumental or useless to mitigating tensions between the two states in Syria, where they back opposing forces.  If nothing else, one can be certain that establishing such an agreement may not warm relations between the U.S. and China, as it has done little to affect overall discourse between the U.S. and Russia.

To be honest, we have many difficult issues where we will not necessarily have the same perspectives,” Dunford said at the opening of the military-to-military talks. “But from the meeting we had in Washington, D.C., and the meeting we just had, I know we share one thing: we share a commitment to work through these difficulties. With the guidance from our presidents and the areas of our cooperation, I know we will make progress over the next few days.”

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However, despite the chances that this agreement will lead to a friendlier discourse between China and the U.S. being minimal, it could serve as the means to prevent a war that would undoubtedly be bad for both nations, as well as the global economy; a sentiment championed by James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, in June of this year.

While competition between the U.S. and China, the world’s two largest economies, is bound to occur, conflict is not inevitable.  Our two countries can and do cooperate for mutual benefit.  And we will pledge to work closely with China where we share common cause.” Mattis said in June.

China launched 18 new naval vessels in 2016, including a new carrier set to permit the nation a much further reach in terms of force projection, meaning tensions between the U.S. and China in the South China Sea are likely to continue to rise in the years to come.  The potential for conflict with North Korea also presents a friction point between the two nations, as China serves as North Korea’s primary trade partner and ally.

“The military-to-military contacts between the United States and China are important because there will always be some friction between the two countries,” Dunford said, adding that the two nations should work to find areas to cooperate.

“As we start these meetings, having the framework for dealing with these difficult issues is different than making progress on them,” he said. “I think our collective challenge is to sincerely and with candor attack these issues that we have to address.”

 

Image courtesy of the Dept. of Defense