U.S.-China military-to-military relations for 2017 are off to a slow start, and questions are being raised about whether the program has been put on hold or even curtailed by the Trump administration.
U.S. Navy Commander Gary Ross, the Pentagon spokesperson for Asia Pacific affairs, told VOA that there had been one direct engagement between the two militaries since the beginning of the year, a meeting January 18 on defense policy coordination, which included the discussion on plans for the year.
Bryan Clark, a senior fellow at the CSBA think tank in Washington, told VOA that plans for these engagements are usually worked out by fall in the prior year.
Ross said late last week that the Trump administration has not ordered the Pentagon to stop or curtail U.S.-China military relations.
Sides stilling working setting up engagements
China's Ministry of Defense has confirmed that the two sides are still working on a list of engagements. A spokesman for the Chinese Ministry of Defense said Thursday that China attaches great importance to the development of Sino-U.S. military relations and hopes that the U.S. will jointly promote the sustained and healthy development of the relations between the two armed forces.
For the past three years, by the end of February there had been at least one military-to-military engagement at the highest officer level, records show.
Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggested Thursday in a talk at the Brookings Institution that the U.S. military relationship with China is linked to the political relationship between the two countries.
“Our military-to-military relationships are informed by our national objectives,” he said. “So the nature of our military-to-military relationship with China right now will be very consistent with our political relationship with China. But at minimum, [we need] open lines of communication to mitigate the risk and miscalculation, and to address some of the incidents at sea and in the air.”
Such incidents include the close call earlier this month between a Chinese KJ-200 early warning aircraft, which passed about 300 meters (1,000 feet) in front of a U.S. Navy P-3 plane on a routine mission in international airspace near Scarborough Shoal, between the Chinese mainland and the Philippines. As a result, the P-3 was forced to make an immediate turn.
Even though the event between the two aircraft came as tensions between the U.S. and China are heightened because of China's moves to create man-made islands in the South China Sea, U.S. military officials were in contact with their appropriate Chinese counterparts as the incident was investigated.
Mexico incident sets tone
In an interview with VOA last month, Clark said President Donald Trump is less likely to give in if Beijing uses scheduled military engagements as leverage. Clark pointed to a recent incident when the president canceled a visit with Mexico's President Enrique Peña Nieto because of differences over immigration policy.
“If there was a disagreement between us and China, the Chinese would use that upcoming engagement as a tool to force the United States to back down and agree with the Chinese terms,” Clark said. “It seems that, given this Mexico example, the Trump administration is not likely to follow that a pattern.”