Obama, Xi Vow Steps to Enhance Military Cooperation

The U.S. and China agreed to increase cooperation and communication between their armed forces to reduce the risk of a mistake that might cause local disputes to mushroom into a military conflict.

At a news conference today in Beijing, Chinese President Xi Jinping said the military-to-military relationship will be bolstered with the “confidence-building” measures.

Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama agreed that each side will notify the other of upcoming military exercises and arrange for observation of the activities. They’ll also develop rules for behavior when there are close encounters between the U.S. and Chinese air or naval forces, according to a White House statement.

In August, a Chinese fighter came within 20 feet of a U.S. Navy P-8 surveillance plane flying at 400 miles per hours. The intercept occurred east of Hainan Island, home to Chinese military facilities including a nuclear submarine base.

The near-collision prompted quickening talks between the two sides on avoiding a mishap that could trigger a broader crisis in relations. In 2001, a Chinese military plane collided with a Navy EP-3, forcing the U.S. plane to land on a Chinese airbase where the crew was detained for 11 days. The Chinese pilot was killed.

Along with the August incident, Chinese planes have been involved in risky intercepts with Japanese aircraft over a disputed island chain in the East China Sea.

Sea Route

The military jostling took place above one of the global economy’s main lifelines. More than $5 trillion worth of goods passes through the South China Sea each year, including more than half the world’s oil trade.

Going into this week’s talks, U.S. officials were aimed at getting China to agree on “practical things that can be done to build confidence,” Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said.

The need for rules of the road has become more urgent as China’s economic growth fuels a military buildup. Only the U.S. spends more than China on its armed forces. In March, Xi’s government announced plans to increase military spending by 12.2 percent this year to roughly $130 billion, still less than one-quarter of Pentagon spending.

The open checkbook has enabled the Chinese navy to operate farther afield, with vessels sailing into the Indian Ocean. A more robust air force, which this week unveiled a new stealth fighter called the J-31, has challenged neighboring Japan as well as the United States. “It’s incredibly important that we avoid inadvertent escalation and that we don’t find ourselves having an accidental circumstance lead into something that could precipitate conflict,” Rhodes told reporters.

The U.S. military also will work to complete a mechanism for notification of ballistic missile launches, according to the statement.

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