Surprise: U.S.-China Military Ties Are Actually Improving

A US navy serviceman walks past an F/A-18 Hornet warplane onboard the USS George Washington, a nuclear powered aircraft carri
A US navy serviceman walks past an F/A-18 Hornet warplane onboard the USS George Washington, a nuclear powered aircraft carrier, and a Hong Kong passenger ferry are seen together in Hong Kong on November 9, 2011. The Nimitz Class warship, which was commissioned in 1992, was in Hong Kong for a port visit. AFP PHOTO / AARON TAM (Photo credit should read aaron tam/AFP/Getty Images)

This article currently appears in The Diplomat.

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Thursday marks the start of RIMPAC 2014, the largest naval exercise in the world. For the first time, China is among the participants in this U.S.-organized exercise. As Ankit noted on our Flashpoints blog, China's participation in RIMPAC is unlikely to fundamentally change the nature of U.S.-China mil-to-mil relations. However, in the midst of angry rhetoric on both sides (particularly at the Shangri-La Dialogue), it's easy to forget that the military aspect of the U.S.-China relationship has actually been on the upswing in recent years.

As high-level talks have become more routine, the two sides have begun to increase joint drills -- not just RIMPAC, but bilateral drills as well. The U.S. and China have held a number of joint exercises on search and rescue operations, anti-piracy, humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. These are small steps forward, but they still represent progress. China has been particularly adamant that its participation in RIMPAC should not be easily dismissed; a Xinhua commentary argued firmly that the RIMPAC drill was "not window-dressing for China-U.S. ties." Meanwhile, U.S. Rear Admiral Mark Montgomery also sees recent joint activities as signs "of a modestly improving relationship."

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