December 08, 2011

Can China and the United States Develop Stronger Military Ties Through Environmental Cooperation?

Yesterday, U.S. and Chinese officials met in Beijing for
their annual military review, known as the Defense Consultative Talks. The meeting
between the countries’ senior defense officials comes on the heels of President
Obama’s trip to the Asia-Pacific where he emphasized a greater U.S. military
presence (including in Australia), and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s
announcement that the United States will pivot from the Middle East to Asia as
it draws down from its conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. During the talks,
Chinese General Ma Xiaotian urged the United States and China “to
enhance communication, to expand common ground, to promote mutual understanding
Under Secretary of Defense Michèle Flournoy said she hoped the two
militaries could “agree
on issues and interests that the two sides share

As policymakers look for opportunities to strengthen
military ties, they should consider environmental cooperation, in particular
humanitarian and disaster response and climate adaptation, which may facilitate
better cooperation between the two countries, serving as a means for confidence
building and increasing transparency that could help defuse tensions over the expanding
U.S. and Chinese naval presence in the Western Pacific, including the South
China Sea. 

Skeptics may argue that environmental cooperation is not
enough to facilitate the kind of meaningful engagement needed to build
confidence between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. Yet history would suggest
that this kind of cooperation has done particularly well at building ties
between states overshadowed by rivalry. The Arctic Military Environmental
Cooperation, for example, was a military-to-military exchange between the
United States, Norway and the Soviet Union that was aimed at improving military
ties between the Cold War foes through joint exercises to reduce the
environmental impact from their naval presence and early warning radar systems
in the Arctic. Under this framework, the environment generally served as a
means for militaries to engage and further their security goals by improving
transparency, relations between officers and training which can help reduce
tensions and suspicions between competitor states, or build good will between

Environmental cooperation in particular is a rather low
politics form of engagement, or at least less contentious than other forms of
cooperation, such as nuclear disarmament or border delineation, where zero-sum
politics leaves one side perceiving to lose something (domestic face, perhaps)
while the other gains an advantage at its expense. Environmental engagement
such as training to bolster humanitarian and disaster relief response can be
viewed as benefitting both sides.

Of course, as a cautionary note, this framework for
engagement obviously has its limitations. Depending on the state of diplomatic relations
between the United States and China, environmental cooperation may not be possible.
It is not difficult to imagine, for example, that another Hainan Island/EP-3
incident could drive a stubborn wedge between the United States and China that
precludes the two from even those most benign forms of military cooperation.

Nevertheless, as the United States and China look to develop
more robust military ties, these softer forms of cooperation – enhancing natural
disaster response and climate change adaptation such as sharing standards for
seawalls at naval installations that protect against storm surge and sea-level
rise – may provide the kinds of opportunities to foster transparency and
patterns of behavior that can reduce future tensions. Doing so is likely to
grow ever more important as the United States and China expand their presence in
the Western Pacific. Any opportunity to strengthen engagement between the two
countries could help build sustained relationships between their respective
officer corps and help reduce misperceptions that might otherwise destabilize