The Americans are sometimes led around empty Potemkin bases and entertained with Kung Fu shows rather than genuine drills. They wonder why they should waste their time on such junkets, which offer little insight into Chinese intentions or how the two sides might defuse a crisis. When senior officers of the two sides meet, the Chinese tend to spend much of the time lambasting American foreign policy rather than discussing how to build trust.
In recent years China has forged ever-closer military ties with Russia. In September China sent thousands of troops to join Russia’s largest manoeuvres since the cold war. But when invited to take part in American exercises, China has behaved boorishly. In 2014 America, to its credit, allowed the Chinese navy to join RIMPAC, the world’s largest multinational war games at sea. Instead of responding with camaraderie, China demanded plum roles, sent spy ships to snoop on the manoeuvres and barred Japanese officers from the traditional shipboard cocktail party. America excluded China from RIMPAC this year in protest against China’s deployment of missiles on artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea. That upset the Chinese navy, but the Americans rightly felt no loss. Even when given a nopportunity to build bridges, Chinese officers have chosen to ignore it.
The two armed forces do not just use faxes to communicate. A channel called the Defence Telephone Link was set up adecade ago. A whizzier video link between the chairman of America’s joint chiefs of staff and his Chinese counterpart was established more recently. The problem is not a lack of channels. It is how they are used. American officials have made clear that if China were to call during a crisis, they would pick up the phone. They are not sure whether China would do the same.