Despite tensions between the United States and China over the South China Sea, the two nations’ militaries train together at a very high level. Current “mil-mil” engagements are robust, with China participating in the world’s largest international maritime exercise, RIMPAC 2014, which is hosted biannually by the US Pacific Command. The drills allowed China to learn a great deal about US tactics, techniques and procedures (in military shorthand, “TTPs”).
But even as the United States provided China with its highest-level access to military drills, the US military leadership consistently ratcheted up the level of confrontation in the South China Sea. Most recently, a top US Navy admiral participated in a surveillance flight in the region. The United States is at once inching closer to armed confrontation, while at the same time training Chinese forces in the American way of war.
RIMPAC is one of many occasions when US forces have trained their Chinese counterparts. China has participated in US-led counter-piracy operations in the Indian Ocean since 2008. Initially, due to language difficulties and unfamiliarity with American and allied forces tactics, techniques and procedures, China was given a separate area to patrol. But over the last seven years, cooperation has become closer, as the United States sought greater coordination of operations and closer relations with Chinese ships, by conducting combined exercises in 2013 and again in 2014.
This increased interoperability allowed Chinese forces to learn counter-piracy tactics, techniques and procedures, especially those relating to how to support ships that are deployed far from land, for long periods of time. They also learned how to properly run visits and time off for their troops in foreign ports, and how to configure ships to be both efficient and comfortable for the seamen. From the US Navy, the Chinese learned that allowing telephone contact with family at home enhanced — rather than hurt — troop morale and discipline. The Chinese were also able to study American methods for destroying chemical weapons, as they aided the US Navy in destroying Syria’s surrendered weapons.
China has upped the ante by deploying a nuclear submarine escort for its ships engaged in counter-piracy missions — an added level of protection. To get live training, the United States will track any Chinese submarines as hostile, even in a cooperative environment. China knows this, and is able to use its participation in the international effort to explore the anti-submarine warfare tactics of the US forces stationed on Diego Garcia Island, south of India, as well as those of US and allied forces in the Gulf of Aden.
Chinese ships regularly visit Djibouti, home of America’s Combined Joint Task Force- Horn of Africa, which is responsible for countering violent extremists in Africa. In Djibouti, Chinese forces learn how the United States staffs and operates this task force. Throughout all of its counter-piracy operations, China has adopted the EU’s MERCURY communications network, which allows navies to share in real time data on vessels being tracked, and also to conduct ship-to-ship voice, data and email communication. The communication network allows China to understand exactly how NATO allies coordinate efforts in every stage of sea battle, from planning to execution to assessment.
Cooperation between American and Chinese armed forces goes well beyond RIMPAC and the counter-piracy efforts. In February, 29 Chinese combat naval officers visited the United States, touring the Naval Academy, the Navy War College and the Surface Warfare Officers School, where they participated in training on the US interpretation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, an agreement between 21 countries that establishes rules of the road for how to prevent an escalation of tensions between different militaries at sea.
While the goal of attempting to reduce miscommunication is admirable, the training also allowed China to learn exactly how a US vessel will respond to a sudden encounter with a foreign vessel — invaluable information if the foreign vessel has hostile intent. Chinese and US Naval personnel have also conducted joint training on Humanitarian Assistance Disaster Response, and plan to conduct joint training on search and rescue over the next couple of weeks.
The US military’s decision to train Chinese forces has provoked a mixed response in military and political circles. Retired Admiral James Lyons wrote that: “the nature of regimes matter. We are now helping an incurably aggressive state develop its military — to our peril. There is something very wrong at the core of the Obama administration’s and the Pentagon’s China policies.”
While I disagree with the Obama administration’s China policy, I do not think cutting military engagements is the solution. On the contrary, I agree with National Security Advisor Susan Rice, who has recently called for closer mil-mil relations.
As I have argued before, an aggressive approach to China in the South China Sea is contrary to US interests. The United States should dial down its public rhetoric against China, and refrain from aggressive military action. Such actions are counter-productive and short-sighted. The United States should enhance mil-mil cooperation, taking care to protect its most sensitive tactics, techniques and procedures. So long as there are no shots fired, we should leave the South China Sea to the diplomats.
Bill Johnson is a retired US Air Force officer, and a retired Foreign Service officer.