The Largest Security-Cleared Career Network for Defense and Intelligence Jobs - JOIN NOW


What's with the Relationship between America's Army and China's PLA?

An Examination of the Terms of the U.S. Army's Strategic Peacetime Engagement with the People's Liberation Army of the People's Republic of China

Authored by Colonel Jer Donald Get.

September 15, 1996

38 Pages

Brief Synopsis

In May 1995, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry asked the Army to examine various ways to re-establish the army-to-army ties which existed between the U.S. Army and Beijing's People's Liberation Army (PLA) prior to the 1980s. U.S. President George Bush ordered a curb in military-to-military ties following the Tiananmen incident in 1989, and, since then, efforts at rapprochement between the two armies have been faltering and uneven.

There are some who question the value of renewing military ties with the People's Republic of China (PRC) based on the limited gains accrued to the U.S. Army from the earlier relationship. In this essay, U.S. Army Colonel Jer Donald Get argues that this is a short-sighted attitude. The reasons for renewing army-to-army ties are substantial given that China's relevance as a power will grow. The United States needs to marshal all the resources at its disposal to influence China positively. One of those resources, Colonel Get argues, is America's Army.

The ideas expressed in this monograph constitute a host of positive recommendations which could influence the course of trans-Pacific relations over the next decade. Our Army and the PLA must take a measured approach, setting pragmatic objectives and extending the reciprocity that characterizes relations between great powers. For both armies, and both nations, the stakes are high----to engage as strategic partners rather than clash again in conflict.


In the late spring of 1995, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry asked the Secretary of the Army to look into the restoration of functional exchanges between the American Army and China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). This request was a major step toward the re-establishment of U.S. Army-PLA ties suspended by U.S. President George Bush in response to the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Reviving functional exchanges by Chinese and American military personnel is particularly significant because these exchanges had been one of the "three pillars" of Sino-American military cooperation during the 1980s. Furthermore, even though the U.S. Army has a long- standing tradition of maintaining military-to-military contacts with foreign armies, these contacts and other forms of "peacetime engagement" have grown in significance in the post-Cold War era.1 This is due to a number of factors including the recent reduction of the U.S. Army's force structure, personnel, and overseas presence, as well as the nation's increasing reliance on coalition partners for deterring or prosecuting the potential conflicts of the future.

There are, however, some who question the value of renewing American military ties with the Chinese based on the rather limited U.S. gains from the earlier relationship. Furthermore, significant changes in the political environment make the U.S. Army's re-engagement with the PLA somewhat problematic. The original "China Card" rationale for military ties, that of using China as a strategic counterweight against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), became inoperative with the USSR's demise. Thus, criticism regarding military cooperation with what many Americans view as a repressive Chinese regime, once muted for the greater good of Soviet containment, has found both a stronger voice and more receptive listeners. Additionally, reductions in manpower, money, and materiel, when taken together with growing worldwide demands for the attention and/or intervention of the U.S. military, make the cost effectiveness of investing in a relationship with a country that still harbors significant distrust of U.S. strategic intentions rather questionable.

Before re-establishing functional military ties with the PLA, the U.S. Army owes itself a detailed look at the relationship. This study, undertaken to support that process, examines the terms of the American Army's engagement with the PLA.

The examination begins by exploring the history of the broader U.S.-PRC security relationship from which army-to-army ties were derived. The brief historical expedition reveals the security foundations of the original breakthrough in friendly bilateral relations. The historical trace also reveals how this foundation first cracked under the pressures of Tiananmen and finally crumbled with the fall of the old Cold-War bipolarity.

With the original engagement rationale overcome by world events, the examination then focuses on answering the question of why the U.S. Army should renew its ties to the PLA. The answer is in three parts: first, China is relevant to U.S. interests; second, the United States can positively influence the PRC as China develops into a world power; and, third, one of America's most effective engagement tools is the U.S. Army.

After validating the role of the U.S. Army in the U.S.-PRC relationship, the study moves to an evaluation of the terms on which the U.S. Army should renew its engagement with the PLA. This begins with a determination of what went right and wrong for the U.S. Army during its initial peaceful interaction with the Chinese. From these lessons, five actions are recommended. To secure better terms in its renewed engagement with the PLA, the U.S. Army must:

(1) Establish a comprehensive long-range strategy with clearly identified mission objectives.

(2) Prioritize and coordinate (internally and externally) the identified objectives.

(3) Develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to attain these objectives.

(4) Establish measures of effectiveness to track the progress made toward the attainment of particular goals and objectives.

(5) Conduct periodic assessments to refine the engagement strategy.

Finally, in conducting this study, it was determined that a contributing factor to the ad hoc nature of Sino-American military ties is the lack of peacetime engagement doctrine. A final recommendation, therefore, is for the U.S. Army to use its ongoing work on the China engagement strategy as the baseline for the development of a broader peacetime engagement doctrine.

Access Full Report [PDF]: What's with the Relationship between America's Army and China's PLA?

Join the mailing list

One Billion Americans: The Case for Thinking Bigger - by Matthew Yglesias