U.S.-China military interaction: a dysfunctional relationship

Ed Ross Contributor
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China’s on-again-off-again approach to U.S-China military interaction and Beijing’s refusal to allow Secretary of Defense Robert Gates to visit China during his recent Asian trip reveals a dysfunctional military relationship that’s the result of much more than Beijing’s displeasure over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. It reflects fundamentally different national strategic objectives and the changing locus of leverage that result from China’s growing power and influence relative to the U.S.

A good U.S.-China military relationship logically depends on good overall U.S.-China relations, but that hasn’t always been the case. During the Ronald ReaganDeng Xiaoping years, prior to China’s crackdown on the June 5, 1989, Tiananmen Square protests, the military relationship had a life of its own. It served as a critical backchannel to the highest levels of the Chinese government, even when overall relations weren’t good, and it achieved several important accomplishments.

From Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger’s visit to China in September 1983 to June 1989, the U.S. and China shared the desire to contain Soviet power and influence. We engaged in productive high-level dialogue, military exchanges, and U.S. arms sales to China toward that end. And we developed personal relationships with influential PLA officials that gave us a direct line to the leadership in Zhongnanhai. The U.S.-China military relationship concerned Moscow greatly.

Our willingness to transfer less than state-of-the-art weapons and military technology to China provided us leverage. During the Iran-Iraq war, when U.S. ships began operating in the Persian Gulf, China suspended the sale of Silkworm anti-ship missiles to Iran at our urging. It agreed not to sell medium range ballistic missiles to other countries. It began to engage in serious intelligence exchanges. And it cooperated with the U.S. on the transfer of weapons to the Mujahedeen fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan. All this took place with a People’s Liberation Army (PLA) whose strident anti-American attitudes of the Mao Zedong era were still fresh in its collective memory.

At the same time, an unspoken quid-pro-quo existed over U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. China protested them but not so much that its protests might interfere with its own arms purchases from the U.S. The predominance of leverage was on the U.S. side.

Tiananmen, coupled with the end of the Cold War, however, changed the two countries’ strategic calculi. The overlapping strategic interests that existed prior to 1989 were no longer operative. Congress placed sanctions on military sales to China—which are still in place—and China reevaluated the utility of military ties with the U.S. The military relationship entered a dormant period until it was slowly revived after 1993 during the Clinton administration.

By then, the rapid demise of the Soviet Union had sent shockwaves throughout the Chinese Communist Party. The stunning U.S. victory in the First Gulf War awakened China to its military vulnerability and the perceived threat posed to it by U.S. forces in the Pacific. And China’s economic strategy was beginning to produce the economic growth that enabled it to fund its stalled military modernization, allowing it to eventually turn to Russia for advanced military equipment.

The U.S. had little to offer China except for allowing the PLA access to information about U.S. military capabilities and strategy. Concerned about what the Chinese were learning, Congress placed restrictions on military exchanges in the FY 2000 Defense Authorization Act. It discovered that China was able to use them to gain access to critical U.S. military vulnerabilities while all the U.S. was getting in return were opportunities to promote U.S. values and encourage China to act as a partner in addressing common security challenges—with little success.

Renewed U.S.-China military cooperation also was affected at the beginning of the George W. Bush administration by the April 1, 2001, EP-3E incident. This hiatus, however, was overtaken by the growing U.S dependence on China. Its economic expansion became a principal source of funding for the U.S. national debt, and we became increasingly dependent on China for help in the UN with North Korea and Iran.

Today, the preponderance of leverage that existed prior to 1989 is reversed. The U.S. has a greater desire for the military relationship than its Chinese counterpart. China has the superior leverage, and it wants to use that leverage to force the U.S. to stop selling arms to Taiwan.

How then, can meaningful U.S.-China military interaction take place in this environment? The answer is that it can’t, and it shouldn’t, not until the U.S. finds a way to recapture the leverage it once had.

Unfortunately, too many on the U.S. side seek military interaction with China for its own sake. Visits by senior U.S. military officers to China and visits to Chinese ports by U.S. Navy ships are ardently sought after opportunities. Moreover, few U.S. military and defense officials who visit China have any knowledge of what took place between 1983 and 1989 and why the U.S. approach to the military relationship then was so successful.

China suspended the military exchange program earlier this year following the announcement of the $6.4B arms sales package to Taiwan. So be it. Secretary Gates and others should refrain from bemoaning this publicly or to the Chinese, and he should direct his and the Joint staffs to take a long hard look at the relationship, from the beginning, and determine what leverage, if any, the U.S. might have with the PLA.

In the meantime, the U.S. will do more to gain the respect of the Chinese military establishment by focusing on its military relationships with its traditional Asian allies—Japan, Korea, Australia, Singapore, the Philippines—and, yes, our unofficial ally, Taiwan. The U.S.-India military relationship also should be part of this group.

If the PLA chooses to interpret these alliances as aimed at them, there’s little we can do about that. Their vast military buildup is certainly aimed at us. We’ve been trying to reason with them for years about U.S. force posture to little avail. But if, as Gates said in Singapore, “The PLA is significantly less interested in this relationship than the political leadership of China,” then it’s up to the Chinese political leadership to mend fences.

As for U.S. arms sales to Taiwan, the U.S. has a moral obligation to the 23 million people on Taiwan who live in freedom under a democratically elected government. Until China begins to remove the 1500 ballistic missiles it has aimed at Taiwan and the Chinese people on both sides of the Taiwan strait come to a peaceful resolution of their differences, our commitment to the people of Taiwan tells the PLA more about our values than anything we might say to them during a military exchange.