For a handful of obvious reasons, now is an awkward time for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to visit Beijing: the US recently installed a THAAD missile-defense shield in South Korea over China's objections. Tensions have been compounded by further, more aggressive policies implemented since President Donald Trump took office: the selling of arms to Taiwan, the increase in "freedom of operation" missions in the South China Sea, and of course the recent launch of quasi-trade war.
So it’s unsurprising that the Chinese wouldn’t give Joseph Dunford the warmest welcome when he arrived, part of a three-nation tour of Asia. In a meeting with reporters, one senior military officer criticized the U.S., blaming it for a collapse in “military trust” between the two countries.
Discussing the deterioration in relations, Fan Changlong, vice chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission, told Joseph Dunford that "wrong actions on the Taiwan issue, the United States deploying the THAAD system around China, U.S. ships and aircraft's activities in the South China Sea, the United States close-in surveillance in the sea and air near China have had a large, negative influence on bilateral military ties and mutual trust."
Here's how Reuters described the encounter:
“The "wrong" actions of the United States on Taiwan, its South China Sea patrols and deployment of an advanced anti-missile system in South Korea have had a large, negative influence on military trust, a senior Chinese officer said on Thursday. Fan Changlong, a vice chairman of China's powerful Central Military Commission, told Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, that mutual trust mechanisms between the two militaries had continued to improve, China's defense ministry said.
And yet, recent US actions "have had a large, negative influence on bilateral military ties and mutual trust."
Chinese sensitivity to anything Taiwan-related is well-known. But a more immediate concern for the Chinese is THAAD, which Beijing is concerned shifts the balance of power in the region. It complains that its radar interferes with Chinese security, although China really sees the "missile defense system" as US encroachment in a region that should be strictly off limits to US presence. Meanwhile, repeatedly sailing destroyers within miles of the Spratly islands is taken as a deliberate provocation.
In response, Dunford criticized Chinese intercepts of US fighter jets flying in or near Chinese airspace.
“The United States has expressed concern about what it calls unsafe intercepts of U.S. aircraft by the Chinese air force and a lack of transparency in military spending by China, which is in the midst of an ambitious military modernization program.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford told the press that he traveled to China to oversee the creation of a new secure videoconference tool that would be “responsive” in the event of an emergency. Given the uneasy state of relations with North Korea, that may be come in handy in the very near future.
“Speaking later to reporters, Dunford said the main "deliverable" for his trip was the signing of a framework agreement for a joint staff dialogue mechanism. Dunford said China and the United States already have capability to do secure video teleconferences between Dunford and Fang Fenghui, chief of the Joint Staff Department of the People's Liberation Army. The U.S. embassy also has immediate access to China's General Staff, he added.
Then again, sending somebody half way around the world to set up a video chat to prevent war may be... naive.
In any case, Dunford's presence was seen by analysts as a show of strength, and a sign that generals and military people have increasingly elevated status in the Trump administration, something which that Chinese will certainly keep in mind.