As the United States was deploying destroyers, stealth bombers, and missile defense batteries around the Pacific last month as a show of force against North Korea's nuclear provocations, the Pentagon's top leaders said they had little interaction with China, alarming some senators.
But under the radar, U.S. defense and military officials were confident that Beijing understood Washington's intentions, having steadily increased the stream of communications and contact with the People's Liberation Army over the past few years. For the Pentagon's top China policy official, the trend is promising enough to leave him with a "realistic" sense that a page may have been turned and after years of fits and starts, military-to-military relations between Beijing and Washington may be reaching an even keel.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for East Asia David Helvey sat with the E-Ring on Wednesday for a rare on-the-record interview about the state of relations between the Pentagon and the PLA, and their joint role in managing the North Korean nuclear standoff of the past two months.
In March, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel used a "hotline" phone to call China's new minister of national defense, Gen. Chang Wanquan, for a 45-minute introductory conversation in which they discussed a range of issues. Hagel, according to Pentagon press secretary George Little, encouraged they keep an open dialogue about North Korea's nuclear ambitions. Helvey said they also discussed other issues. Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey also used the hotline to call China's chief of the General Staff, Gen. Fang Fenghui, prior to his own visit.
"We're really looking to expand the use of this hotline just as a mechanism for direct communication between our senior leaders," Helvey said.
A strong sign of the relationship's health has been China's receptiveness to talk at all, he said.
"The Chinese have shown a willingness to discuss North Korea with us. They've taken some steps to cooperate with the international community," said Helvey, especially at the United Nations Security Council.
"These are real opportunities and interactions."
But by design, he said, during the North Korean tension most U.S. interaction with China occurred through diplomatic channels, not the Pentagon.
"Quite frankly, the military aspects of this is not something that we wanted to highlight," Helvey said.
"We had communications certainly at my level," he explained. Helvey's job was to convey the administration's message from the Pentagon to the PLA through the Chinese defense attaché in Washington.
"Part of what we try to do in our military channels in situations like that is to make sure we're providing the same type of message that's occurring through the diplomatic channels, so that we're presenting a unified view to the Chinese," he said, "so the military understands the same thing that the Foreign Ministry is getting."
Helvey, in return, took the People's Liberation Army's view back to Hagel at the Pentagon.
At the time, Pacific Commander Adm. Samuel Locklear raised alarms when he told the Senate Armed Service Committee he had not been on the phone with the PLA Navy to manage tensions. Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-NH, both pressed Locklear to reach out and touch someone in China.
"We're not there yet," Locklear said, at the time.
"Quite frankly it is a challenge in the relationship," Helvey said, "because our military and the Chinese military are structured somewhat differently." The PACOM commander doesn't have a direct counterpart in China, though he explained how top brass have found their way into the PLA.
"The Chinese war-fighting commands, if you were to call it that, are reflected along military regions which are organized along interior lines. So it doesn't go outside of China," he explained. Most militaries, in fact, do not have officers directly comparable to U.S. combatant commanders, who command troops deployed over vast regions of the globe.
Instead, the United States has tried to engage with several parts of the PLA in lieu of "a direct fit" by talking to regional commanders, sending Locklear and others to participate in strategic and economic dialogues, visiting Beijing, and calling on senior Chinese officers.
Since Beijing temporarily cut communications with the Pentagon during 2010, the United States and China's militaries have maintained contacts via several appointments. In 2012, former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and Adm. Locklear all visited China. Beijing sent their defense minister and a high-level uniformed deputy of strategy to Washington.
Below that senior level, at least 20 exchanges, meetings, and joint exercises occurred between U.S. and PLA military and defense officials -- events that included policy talks, the convening of a maritime working group, and even a meeting between the Pentagon's office for missing POWs and PLA archivists. National Defense University and the PLA's equivalent continued their exchanges and the National War College sent a delegation to China.
Dempsey visited China last month, and later this year Gen. Ray Odernio, Army chief of staff, and Gen. Mark Welsh, Air Force chief of staff, have scheduled China trips. On the docket are port visits, exchanges of military legal teams, a disaster management exercise, and more academic exchanges.
This summer, Under Secretary of Defense Jim Miller, the policy chief, will attend another round of annual consultative talks.
Outside of the bilateral relationship, Helvey said the Pentagon continues to encourage China to participate more in multilateral venues, "to become part of the international system, part of the international framework that supports stability, peace, prosperity."
"I think it's been incremental," Helvey said. "It's something that I think we're going to have to continue working."
But he sees opportunity in the PLA's own global plans. PLA leaders have tasked its force to go beyond regional missions, Helvey notes (as does the Pentagon's latest China power report, released last week), from counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden to evacuating civilians in Libya. China now deploys more U.N. peacekeeping troops than any other permanent Security Council member.
"From our perspective, if China's going to be out there using its military forces -- deploying them farther and farther away from China -- to the extent that we can encourage them to cooperate with the international community, I think that helps to bring us toward that positive outcome in the relationship that we seek."
"We want to be able to develop a positive, cooperative, comprehensive relationship with China. There's a role for having a healthy, stable, reliable military-to-military relationship, and that's what we want to do," he said.
Still, there are skeptics who remain less than eager to lock arms with the PLA. Just last year, China often was painted as a rival, even an enemy, in a heated presidential campaign. But Helvey persists.
"The U.S.-China relationship is complex," he said. "It is very complex, but a critically important relationship. I think the military-to-military relationship has improved, but I think we have very real expectations of what we can get out of it."
Friction is, he said, "inevitable."
"The relationship now is probably as good as it's been in recent memory."
The goal remains to be able to weather those storms without another military-to-military blackout.
"We have realistic expectations."
Kevin Baron reports on the people and policies driving the Pentagon and the national security establishment in The E-Ring.