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What Open Skies Can Do For Chinese-American Relations

by William Lambers on May 3, 2006

William Lambers

How the United States deals with China is one of the greatest foreign policy challenges Americans face in the 21st century. Preventing an arms race with the fast growing Asian power is critical to U.S. security. At their recent meeting both President Bush and Chinese President Hu Jintao acknowledged the need to better increase their exchanges and cooperation between their armed forces.

A competition in armaments between China and the United States will cause increased tensions and the draining of vast resources on both sides. The United States must take steps now to avert this dangerous prospect by invoking a proven diplomatic tool in the American arsenal.

The United States, Canada, the Soviet Union and other European nations began in 1989 to discuss allowing unarmed peace planes to fly over each other’s territory. The idea was to increase military transparency and cooperation. The result was the 1992 Open Skies Treaty which is in force today over most of Europe and North America. An agreement similar to the Open Skies Treaty must be developed between the United States and China to lessen mutual suspicion regarding each other’s military capabilities and intent.

In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice said, “One has to be concerned by increasing Chinese military power,” adding that “there’s a question of intent.” It is not just the United States that is on pins and needles over the augmentation of Chinese military forces. Japan has also expressed concern over the buildup. China has missiles aimed directly at Taiwan, a self-ruled island separated from Mainland China since 1949 as a result of a civil war.

At the White House, President Hu stated that Taiwan is an inalienable part of Chinese territory and that China will by no means allow Taiwan independence.

The United States, with its vital economic interests throughout Asia, does not want to see the Pacific region destabilized. An open skies agreement between the United States and China will go a long way toward ensuring future stability in Asia. The example of Europe and North America provides a model.

Members of the Open Skies Treaty announced last year their willingness “to enter into dialogue with interested parties in order to share experiences and to provide support and advice on cooperative aerial observation.” This offer must not go by the boards. As a first step, the United States must invite Chinese officials to attend a conference to discuss the open skies confidence-building measure.

Is it realistic to bring China and the United States together on an aerial inspection agreement that would forge unprecedented openness between the two nations? They could start with trial inspection flights between the two powers. Such experimental flights were held throughout Europe and North America prior to the 1992 Open Skies Treaty taking effect. Hungary and Romania even forged their own bilateral aerial inspection agreement in 1991 and invited observers to their trial flight. These trial flights provided a vast learning experience for all nations involved. Today, it is routine for U.S., Russian or European planes to conduct inspection missions over each other’s territory.

A similar experience can occur between the United States and China and also be expanded to other parts of Asia. Chinese-American cooperation in aerial inspection would pave the road for India and Pakistan, as well as the Koreas, to adopt similar arrangements. The accumulation of confidence-building steps, such as open skies, in regions such as Asia will create a climate more suitable for nuclear disarmament.

The development of an open skies inspection regime will increase cooperation and transparency between the Chinese and U.S. military. Such an agreement has been successfully enacted over most of Europe and North America. Should any less be expected throughout Asia?


William Lambers is an author and historian who partnered with the World Food Programme on the book “Ending World Hunger: School Lunches for Kids Around the World” (2009).