A delegation of the People’s Liberation Army, the largest group of Chinese military officers ever to visit the United States, recently toured the Pentagon and other U.S. defense facilities. Part of its mission was to overcome the ban on weapons and technology sales to China imposed by Congress in 1990 after the Tiananmen Square massacre of peaceful demonstrators.
U.S. presidents, defense secretaries and Pacific naval commanders have consistently chafed at these congressional restrictions, which they view as inhibiting the presumed benefits of robust military relations: conflict prevention and crisis management, particularly over Taiwan; transparency and reciprocity; cooperation on
North Korea, counterterrorism and nonproliferation.
Executive branch officials and other China specialists visualize military interaction as encouraging pro-American attitudes and greater professionalization within the Chinese military. They also posit that there is an inherent deterrent — Chinese officials seeing firsthand the technological prowess of the U.S. military are unlikely to favor aggressive behavior.
The head of the PLA delegation, General Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff, encouraged that benign narrative in his remarks at the National Defense University: “To be honest, I feel very sad after visiting, because I think, I feel, and I know, how poor our equipments are and how underdeveloped we remain.”
But U.S. officials are less likely to take such humility at face value after China’s assertive actions in the South and East China seas and Beijing’s continued threats to Taiwan despite its election of a
They also recall how Beijing embarrassed Defense Secretary Robert Gates during his visit last year by suddenly announcing the successful test of a Chinese stealth fighter — years before the secretary, a former CIA director, had predicted it would fly.
Still, official U.S. faith in the power of personal and professional interaction to moderate Chinese policies runs deep. In 1998, Admiral Joseph Prueher, commander of the Pacific Fleet, described his extensive cultivation of Chinese military counterparts. “If the balloon ever went up,” he would know whom to call to prevent a crisis from escalating.
Three years later, he was the U.S. ambassador to China when one of its fighter jets collided with a U.S.EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace, causing it to crash-land on Hainan Island. His calls to PLA interlocutors went unanswered as the crisis festered.
For years, Beijing has failed in its efforts to buy U.S. long-range transport aircraft to fill a gap in its air capabilities. Last year, China asked to purchase C-130s for its disaster relief operations — and Washington acceded to the request even though such a capability will also be highly useful to China in a military operation, including one against Taiwan.
American officials continue to ignore or dilute the congressional constraints on military cooperation with China while Beijing persists in exploiting U.S. engagement anxiety by pressuring Washington to stop selling arms to Taiwan and resume selling them to China.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the Office of the Secretary of Defense as China country desk officer from 2005-06 and has taught graduate seminars on China-U.S. relations at Georgetown University. This article appeared in The Weekly Standard.