03 February 2015

MOUs: The Secret Sauce to Avoiding a U.S.-China Disaster?

Peter A. Dutton, “MOUs: The Secret Sauce to Avoiding a U.S.-China Disaster?The National Interest, 30 January 2015.

The American and Chinese militaries have had some close calls and fatal encounters at sea and in the skies. The newly signed MOUs could help prevent future collisions.

On August 19, 2014, a U.S. Navy P-8A Poseidon maritime surveillance aircraft was flying above the Chinese exclusive economic zone (EEZ) about 220 nautical miles east of Hainan Island in the South China Sea when a People’s Liberation Army Navy Air Force (PLANAF) J-11 fighter intercepted it. The encounter, according to Pentagon spokesman Rear Admiral John Kirby, was “very close, very dangerous … pretty aggressive and very unprofessional. … On three different occasions, the Chinese J-11 crossed directly under the U.S. aircraft, with one pass having only 50-100 feet separation between the two aircraft … The Chinese jet also passed the nose of the P-8 at 90 degrees with its belly toward the P-8 to show its weapons load-out. In doing so the [Chinese] pilot was unable to see the P-8, further increasing the potential for a collision. … The Chinese pilot then flew directly under and alongside the P-8, bringing their wingtips within 20 feet, and then, before he stabilized his fighter, he conducted a roll over the P-8, passing within 45 feet.” The incident ended without a collision or the death of aircrew from either side, but it invoked memories of another serious incident that did not end as well—the April 2001 collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 and a Chinese F-8 in which the Chinese pilot perished.

Although the most recent encounter ended without casualty, the seriousness of the P-8 Incident energized the U.S. government ahead of the November 2014 APEC Summit to get some results in improving the nature of the interactions between American and Chinese military units. After several rounds of negotiations in both Beijing and Washington, in early November 2014, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese Ministry of National Defense signed two Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) designed to enhance the stability of the military relationship between the two countries. The first, an MOU concerning “Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters” speaks to the American desire to fully integrate China into the rules-based international maritime order. The second, an MOU on “Notification of Major Military Activities” is explicitly a confidence-building mechanism to advance a “new model … of military-to-military relations” and to promote increased Chinese transparency. The Notification MOU seeks to build and institutionalize habits of positive communication in order to reduce the risk of misunderstanding and to avoid miscalculation. …