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Chapter Seventeen

The Military Component of the U.S.-China Relationship


Alfred D. Wilhelm, Jr.


In October 2001, Presidents George W. Bush and Jiang Zemin met in Shanghai to discuss the participation of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in the global antiterrorism campaign. This renewed interest in national security cooperation suggests a need for the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to develop jointly a step-by-step plan for resuming the military component of the Sino-American bilateral relationship. Following the EP-3 incident in April 2001, the United States essentially cut off the remaining vestiges of the previous atrophying military relationship. Following the presidential discussions, the PRC awaited a U.S. invitation to talk.1 Regular military-to-military exchanges finally resumed in 2002.

Beyond this immediate but potentially short-term mutual need, there is a critical, long-term need for national security cooperation, including substantive military-to-military relations, to enhance significantly prospects for enduring peace and prosperity, vital interests of both countries. Trying to build a cooperative, long-term economic, political, and social relationship without having a means to address the basic defense requirements and fears of each side is like building a house on a foundation of sand. Further complicating the growth of this relationship is the fact that neither side currently classifies the other as a friend and increasingly views the other with suspicion. The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released at the end of September 2001 by DOD, points out that the United States and its Pacific allies and friends probably will have to deal with the emergence of a military competitor--no doubt reflecting fears of a rising PRC.2 Similarly in China, fears that an unfriendly United States is attempting to surround and isolate China are reported regularly to the central leadership and are the subject of frequent news stories. Politically, the easier course of action is to respond to these fears by preparing for a hostile relationship rather than to exercise the political leadership necessary to maintain public support for a policy of forbearance while developing the trust and confidence essential to a cooperative relationship based on international law and convention between two major powers with very dissimilar views of the world and its dominant international order.

Experiences in Building a Military Relationship

A year after the normalization of diplomatic relations in January 1979, the first step was taken toward national security cooperation beyond intelligence collection against the Soviet Union. This step involved a series of high-level defense visits to pursue the normalization of military relations and to continue to reinforce perceptions in Moscow of an emerging condominium. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown visited Beijing in January 1980, followed by visits to the United States in May by General Liu Huaqing of the General Staff Department and in June by General Geng Biao, the next Minister of Defense. The overall framework for the relationship, as developed by Zhou Enlai and Henry Kissinger, envisioned building on common interests and setting aside differences. Foremost was the common security threat from the Soviet Union. For the United States, the new relationship meant further straining the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) military capability toward its breaking point by turning its western flank; for the PRC, it meant greater security from global and regional military pressures within which to begin shifting resources to its newly evolving economic model and to acquiring Western technology in all sectors of society, including the military.

In the months and years that followed, the two sides stressed their common security interests, simultaneously causing the United States to have to assuage actively the resulting fears of its friends and allies in the region. These common security interests were getting Vietnam out of Cambodia; getting the USSR out of Afghanistan; limiting intermediate range nuclear missiles in Asia and Europe; reducing tensions on the Korean Peninsula; ensuring good relations with Japan; and maintaining a U.S. military presence in Asia that served the interest of peace and prosperity in the region.3

In support of these objectives, the military-to-military relationship was organized around three categories of exchanges: high-level visits, functional military exchanges (including education), and military technology cooperation. The last element in particular was designed to reward and provide incentives for the PRC to adapt its efforts to modernize the PLA to international norms.4 From the early experiences with the PLA, perspectives emerged within the U.S. military that these categories lacked bilateral understanding as to what was to be accomplished through these categories in support of bilateral and individual strategic objectives. Relatively few senior officers felt that the United States was getting as much from the relationship as the PRC. The PLA was not as forthcoming as the United States expected. Aside from intelligence cooperation, which was narrowly defined and focused on the Soviet Union and the PLA's ability to draw the Vietnamese out of Cambodia behind the inferred U.S.-PRC condominium against the Soviet Union, cooperation yielded few tangible results for the three services. Despite at least one major effort by each of the services and the Joint Staff, there was a growing concern that the relationship was not systematically producing any significant, long-term benefits to the missions of the individual services.5

Roughly parallel for a decade, U.S.-PRC mutual interests were never sufficiently coincidental to break through the years of distrust and other asymmetries in the relationship to establish a solid foundation for an "enduring military relationship," like those of the United States with North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations and with countries elsewhere in Asia. The mountain is higher for the PRC, whose experiences since 1949 have resulted in no similar relationships, only disappointment and distrust. An early indication of the difficulty of building such a foundation came when the PRC refused Secretary of Defense Brown's request for overflight rights to deliver weapons to the Afghan resistance, a seemingly logical step given the importance to both nations of getting the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan.

In China, the U.S. policy of encouraging change through "evolution," as interpreted by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), reinforced suspicions among party leaders of U.S. motives. It was clear to many of these leaders that the United States was attempting to subvert China's independence and ability to provide reasonably for its own security--just as the other major powers provide for their security. In response to and by comparison with the U.S. approach to the relationship, the PRC approach was imminently practical, narrowly defined, and extractive. The PLA was organized to maximize the transfer of carefully determined technologies through selected arms purchases, training, and education. This approach gradually reinforced concerns in the United States that the relationship was a one-way and "thankless" giveaway that many PLA officers treated as their due--as payment for PLA cooperation against the Soviet Union. Even during the relationship's euphoric high of 1987-1988, a growing number of U.S. military leaders found little in the relationship that they felt the United States needed or wanted in return. High-level return visits by senior U.S. military leaders increasingly involved little more substance than any other interesting representational visit and less for those who were carrying out obligatory return visits directed by the President.6

With some of the common security interests achieved by the late 1980s and others diminished in their urgency, as reflected in the reemergence of friendly Sino-Soviet relations in 1989, the differences between the United States and China had severely corroded their common national security bond--the critical underpinning of the overall relationship. Sino-American relations easily disintegrated into mutual rejection in the wake of the force of the televised tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square in the summer of 1989. Despite a decade of cooperation, and at a time when communications were needed more than ever, military-to-military relations were severed by both sides.

Prior to 1989, military relations were a necessary component of an implicit strategic partnership to confront the Soviet Union. A certain amount of intelligence cooperation was a natural byproduct. Other exchanges were often viewed by both sides as rewards--the expected benefits of the relationship. Neither side trusted the other enough to place an explicit emphasis on building a friendship in the sense of "friends and allies." It was not a clearly defined objective of the relationship. Some on both sides hoped that the requisite trust and confidence in the intentions and capabilities of the other, as found in friendships or alliances, might evolve as a byproduct of the military exchanges. However, it did not.

In the early 1990s, Secretary of Defense William Perry began a revival of the military relationship with defense conversion as its core, but it quickly ground to a halt in the U.S. Congress, where the environment was one of rising fear of PRC military ambitions, espionage, and reactions to developments in Taiwan.7 Despite the conclusion of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, by the time that the EP-3 incident occurred in April 2001, the ability of the military relationship to contribute to the avoidance of misunderstandings and crisis was virtually nonexistent. Since then, little constructive activity has occurred on either side in the military relationship.

The global antiterrorism campaign and the agreement in principle that was reached by Presidents Bush and Jiang in Shanghai offer both sides an opportunity to rethink the bilateral national security relationship and the role therein for a military relationship. As in 1980, intelligence cooperation against a common enemy will provide a greatly needed initial opening, but hopefully it will not be the core of the relationship.

The United States and the PRC are faced with a problem that may be unique in the history of major powers: How do two major powers--with adversarial ideologies,8 a history of military conflict, a healthy dose of mutual distrust, a conflicting sense of whether the international system is fair, and publics with a strong sense of national pride--build a cooperative relationship grounded in international law and convention in which both must have trust and confidence? Escalating defense budgets, violence, and war have been the offspring of similar relationships in the past. Can the United States and the PRC build the defense aspects of the relationship based on long-term interests in peace and prosperity in lieu of war, or will it again be a temporary relationship of convenience--or, in the vernacular of the CCP, a united front campaign? Cutting through this Gordian knot will require more than commercial interests and diplomacy backed by the threat of encirclement.

Obstacles and Asymmetries to Overcome

If the two sides decide to restart the military relationship, a number of obstacles and asymmetries are likely to affect the relationship adversely, as they have in the past. To avoid a repetition of history, this time they need to be addressed openly with a joint, full-time staff to ensure that they are understood and overcome. As the Chinese are fond of saying, "Our histories are different," implying, among other things, that mirror-image analysis and expectations by either side can lead to serious disasters. The different histories have generated important asymmetries between the two military communities ranging across the larger societal differences of culture, language, and vocabulary to the role of intelligence, strategic and tactical concepts, military education objectives and methods, organization, and warfighting techniques. Learning more about theses differences and making them work for the relationship is essential if the two sides are to avoid mistakes based on the misinterpretation of intent and capability.

Distrust: The Fundamental Obstacle

The two sides have not trusted each other since General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell left China at the end of World War II. Since then, the experiences of the U.S. military with the PLA during China's civil war (the remnants of which today are known as the Taiwan Question), the ill-fated PRC friendship agreement (alliance) with the Soviet Union, and the conflicts in Korea, Vietnam, and various Asian insurgencies during the Cold War left memories and institutional legacies that made the initial overtures by the U.S. military to the PLA in the 1980s difficult, albeit, by Presidential fiat, manageable. This was as true, if not more so, for the PLA, in which every soldier knew from experience or training that the enemy was the United States. Throughout the 1980s, former bitter adversaries stepped forward out of conviction or duty to make the relationship work, often taking significant political heat and criticism from their colleagues and others. As a result of these efforts, an increasing number of friendly exchanges occurred during the 1980s (until the summer of 1989) that increased information and understanding about each other and began laying a modest foundation for future movement toward international security cooperation. However, this process stopped with the events of Tiananmen Square and President George H.W. Bush's termination of all aspects of the military-to-military relationship.9 Despite subsequent efforts to resume the relationship, it never came close to achieving previous levels of cooperation or expectation when the United States again terminated it in the wake of the EP-3 incident of April 2001.

Today, many of those who stepped forward on both sides to make the relationship work feel betrayed or frustrated by political decisions made in the post-Tiananmen environment. Despite their significant investments of prestige, time, and effort, little of the relationship remains to show for it. Moreover, most of the individuals involved in the events of the1980s have been replaced in the ensuing 20 years, leaving the two sides with widely divergent and conflicting institutional memories and interpretations by current leaders of the PLA's role in Tiananmen Square in 1989 and of its missile firings near Taiwan, troop movements across from Taiwan, and foreign equipment purchases made throughout the 1990s. Then there are the memories of the bombing of the PRC Embassy in Belgrade and the EP-3 incident. The memories and emotions generated by these events also differ radically on each side and from those of their predecessors from the halcyon days of the 1980s. These recent experiences are exacerbated by longstanding U.S.-PRC disagreement over nuclear strategy, nuclear and missile technology transfers, and the apparent limited ability of the PRC to enforce its own policies and laws that are derivative of bilateral and international agreements.

PLA modernization in recent years, supported by a thriving economy and a parade of modern weapons purchased from Russia and others, has generated in the United States and elsewhere a growing number of forecasts about a rising China with a virulent or aggressive disposition.10 Well before the arrival of the current Bush administration, a growing number of PRC strategists were interpreting U.S. national security policy as a hostile effort to surround and isolate the PRC and thereby deprive it of its legitimate right to self-defense. Even the most popular of the pulp literature in both countries that uses the relationship in the storyline contains a heavy dose of surrealistic appeals for macho responses to actions by the other.11 Increasingly the military community on each side distrusts the intention of the other and lacks confidence in the public statements of the other government that effuse peaceful intentions and defensive needs.

Friendship or Partnership

Both the United States and China have somewhat different interpretations of what is meant by friendship. Most Americans who have visited China have been impressed with Chinese hospitality and the frequent use of the term "new friends or old friends," but seldom are the implications clear as to what is expected of either a new or an old friend.

Culture and history shape how both sides value, award, and bestow the title of friend. The differences generally are a matter of emphasis, as in both societies, friendship involves serious responsibilities and potential penalties if not fulfilled according to expectations. However, by tradition, Chinese friendships tend to be more hierarchical or unequal relationships that emphasize upward loyalty, downward responsibility, shared values, and obligations. Today, these obligations often translate into "backdoor" assistance, which many Westerners view as corruption but most Chinese (and Asians in general) view as an obligation and the grease that minimizes social friction. Breaches of the obligations of friendship result in a loss of face for the Chinese that is not usually matched in its severity among Westerners who depend more on legal sanctions.

The PRC government appears to have developed a preference for the use of partnerships with other nations, in most cases in lieu of friendship agreements and alliances with their extensive historical baggage. Partnerships12 tend to be more focused in purpose, scope, and duration than the more open-ended friendship agreements and the obligations under Western law and tradition for alliances.

Within these general parameters, military-to-military relationships for both countries follow the flag, although military relations tend to be less automatic and less frequent for China.13 The PLA tends to be the "last in" of the various bureaucracies that participate when the PRC opens diplomatic relations with another country and the "first out" later when there is stress in the state-to-state relationship. Permission for extensive contact with another country's military is not given easily by the Chinese Communist Party, to which the PLA owes its allegiance (not the government). The party tends to withdraw or reduce permission more quickly than does the U.S. Government when diplomatic relations are troubled. While a military relationship very seldom leads U.S. foreign policy, it is almost always a component of any relationship. It often involves forward-deployed forces and access to facilities--both practices the PRC rejects, with the exception of the assignment of military personnel in recent years to select United Nations military missions. For the United States, the world's largest purveyor of arms and military training, arms sales are a key component of military relations. In large part because of quality, the PRC is a much smaller supplier, albeit frequently to states with interests inimical to those of the United States. Conversely, the PRC is an important buyer of major, advanced technology weapons systems, especially at present from Russia and in the past from the United States.


The PLA intelligence community is the custodian of the military's international relations and of that element of Chinese strategy that says that the less others know about PLA capabilities, the more likely they are to overestimate its capabilities--which I have likened elsewhere to the protective strategy of a puffer fish. The result is that PLA intelligence staffs control access to other elements of the PLA, filter all information about the PLA, and provide most of the official interpretation of incoming information. This degree of control far exceeds any limitations placed on the U.S. military and, over the years, has generated considerable resentment, distrust, and, on occasion, significant misunderstanding between the sides.

In the U.S. military, activities and information are presumed to be unclassified unless specifically classified. The reverse is true in the PLA. As a result, PLA officers prepare carefully for meetings with foreigners and are very cautious about what they say. They are not trusted to meet with U.S. officers unless given specific permission to do so and even then are seldom allowed to meet alone. This practice even extends to retired senior officers. Private meetings in China easily can draw the unfavorable attention of the Ministry of State Security--a strong deterrent. The strict protocol that U.S. military attaches must follow to meet with PLA officials limits the opportunities to get to know the PLA beyond the narrow circle of officers designated for such contacts. As a matter of reciprocity, the U.S. military is now much more restrictive in permitting the PLA attaches in Washington to meet with U.S. officials than is normal. Unlike in China, however, such restrictions do not apply to retired military officers.

As contrasted with the openness of the U.S. system, articles by PRC analysts seldom cite original Chinese sources for their data, instead referring to such foreign sources as London's International Institute for Strategic Studies to describe PLA forces when necessary (but without confirming any information). The intelligence department's Foreign Affairs Bureau (FAB) must approve officers who travel abroad and any materials that they prepare. Retired senior officers also must have FAB approval, particularly for meetings and conferences--permission that is not easy to obtain. As a further protection, the maximum amount of time that a PLA researcher may spend in the United States was reduced several years ago from a year or more to 6 months or less.

During the mid-1980s, a significant two-way flow of information occurred between the PLA and the U.S. military, albeit in favor of the PLA. Nevertheless, both sides learned a great deal about each other. Those days are gone; today, the river of information is but a carefully controlled trickle, albeit still somewhat unbalanced in favor of the PRC by the more open nature of U.S. society.

Relationship to the Party and State

The PLA, as an instrument of the party, is charged by the constitution to provide a secure environment within which the Chinese people can achieve peace and prosperity. But in implementing this mission, the PLA allegiance is to the CCP, not the central government.14 The party and thus the government's grand strategy (a Western term) for achieving peace and prosperity is the Four Modernizations as established by Zhou Enlai and refined by Deng Xiaoping. It is a strategy for ensuring that China can provide for its own security, as the other major powers do, and for the prosperity of its people. Each succeeding Chinese administration has put its own stamp on the implementation process, as has the PLA, which supports it completely. The key difference for the U.S. military is that the PLA allegiance to the party parallels that of the PRC government to the party, leaving room for significant differences in interpretation of the grand strategy. This relative equality has on occasions pitted the two bureaucracies against each other, but more frequently the relationship translates into irritating inefficiencies between them, especially when dealing with the United States.


The PLA is not organized around a tri-service structure as is the United States, in which all three services are relatively equal in all things ranging from budgets and organization to political and national policy influence. As its name implies, the People's Liberation Army is a continental army whose organizational heritage draws heavily on its own experiences with land warfare, sprinkled with a smattering of influence from the German general staff thinking of the early 20th century and a heavier dose from its period of tutelage by the Soviet Union. Like all militaries, its organization has changed to deal with current needs, but historical experiences shape how new ideas are integrated (or sinicized, in this case). Thus the PLA remains a single or unified military force in which the air force and navy are supporting arms, like its nuclear forces and its former armor and artillery commands.15

When in the early 1980s the PLA had to learn from the nonparty, nonunified militaries of the United States and the West, a position titled Minister of Defense was grafted onto the government so that there would be a counterpart to the U.S. Secretary of Defense. Supported by the PLA Intelligence Department, especially its Foreign Affairs Bureau, and currently as a senior member of the party's Central Military Commission (CMC), the minister is an influential member of the party's military community but primarily as the senior PLA "barbarian handler."16 Consequently, he is not the functional equivalent of the Secretary of Defense, America's senior defense policymaker, but a go-between. The senior vice chairman of the CMC would be a more appropriate counterpart to the Secretary of Defense as the holders of both positions are policymakers who report directly to their country's senior political leader.

In the current relationship, senior policymakers are not talking to each other. The people who think about and decide how their respective military establishments will be equipped, trained, and utilized to implement their national strategies do not have to hammer out their differences directly with each other and thereby have an opportunity to gauge their mettle and sincerity. In addition, there may be times when a team of senior officials and commanders might better represent one side or the other.

In addition to the Secretary of Defense and the senior members of the CMC, the United States and the PRC should reexamine the current asymmetries in responsibilities in the counterpart relationships that involve the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the three service secretaries, the four chiefs of staff, and selected senior DOD deputy and under secretaries and, from the PRC, the chiefs of the General Staff, Political, Logistics, and Armament Departments, the navy, air force, Second Artillery, People's Armed Police, and the Academy of Military Science. There is a twice-established relationship between the two National Defense Universities that, if appropriately used, would benefit the military-to-military relationship enormously.

Party rules in the early 1980s did not permit party organs to have direct contact with comparable authorities in noncommunist states. In the late 1980s, Deng Xiaoping made an unsuccessful effort to establish a mirror-image, government version of the party's military commission in the government that would enable the PLA to be more transparent and efficient in its dealings with the outside world. In the post-Tiananmen era, the CCP decided that the party could have direct relations with foreign political parties other than communists and socialists. While this decision has yet to affect materially how the PLA deals with the outside world, it opens the door to redefining the counterpart relationships of the PLA and the U.S. defense community so that the policymakers of each community are working directly with each other and not through their respective intelligence communities.

An example of the difficulty that the asymmetries in organization create in identifying reasonably close counterparts is that there is no functional equivalent to the U.S. Army Chief of Staff, General Eric Shinseki. The functions of his general staff, as well as most of those of the air force and navy service chiefs, are performed primarily by the PLA General Staff Department (GSD). With the GSD as the keystone, the PLA general departments collect input from the various commands, collate, and build and direct the implementation of the military strategy of the PLA. Thus, there is no army (ground force) strategy; rather, there is a PLA strategy in which ground forces are the basic building blocks supported by air and naval forces and play the central role in most, but not all, warfighting scenarios. There are similar asymmetries in how doctrine is developed. Below the general staff level, China is divided into seven regional commands--where the warfighters are located (a sinicized version of the U.S. Joint Commands) and a series of support commands, including the PLA Air Force and Navy (less autonomous than a U.S. specified command; roughly comparable in authority to a U.S. Army major command). The official PLA counterparts of the U.S. Navy and Air Force command their services as major units with lower standing or levels of responsibility in the PLA than their counterparts in the United States.

During the 1980s, bilateral exchanges permitted the PLA and the United States to examine each other's organizational experiences for their potential import value, although Washington largely ignored the opportunity. Lessons from the U.S. joint system were used during the restructuring of the PLA regional commands beginning in the 1980s, as well as from the DOD personnel system when the PLA developed its civilian staff. The same is true for some logistics and education reforms. Nevertheless, there has been no wholesale importation of any system or matriel in lieu of domestic production. Importation is reserved for research, development, testing, and evaluation (RDT&E) and selected unit applications--the sinification of foreign knowledge.

The differences in organization are matched with differences in scope of responsibility of the two defense establishments. For example, most of the responsibilities of the U.S. Department of Energy for the development and production of nuclear weapons fall within the responsibilities of the PLA. Similarly, many of the arms sale and arms control and disarmament functions led by the U.S. Department of State are led by the PLA. As a result, the PLA, through its intelligence community, negotiates with a broad range of U.S. Government officials. Major differences in financial systems, beginning with budgets at both the national and defense levels, make it extremely difficult to compare expenditures and to extrapolate policy direction or intentions. Without a common understanding of the data, discussions become data debates. These and other asymmetries result in more preaching than discussion of ways to cooperate. Cooperation will depend on the development of a more effective process for understanding and negotiating solutions to critical differences.

Education and Sinification

The People's Liberation Army, like the Chinese military before it, studies the military experiences of other countries (particularly those of the United States in recent years) to identify the reasons for their success or failure (in essence a principles of war assessment) and to isolate those best practices or models for possible importation and sinification.17 This approach to modernization exploits to its fullest the strengths of the Chinese (and thus the military's) education style, which emphasizes patterned learning, rote memorization, and the use of models for problemsolving. Until very recently, creativity and ingenuity have been neither the focus nor the purpose of education. Instead, creativity was relegated to the school of hard knocks, the purview of those who survive the arduous climb to the top. China's short cut to modernization depends on identifying, adapting, and improving upon another country's creativity and ingenuity.

To support the adaptation approach to modernity, the PLA has developed a very competent system for examining firsthand what previously had been gleaned from the continuing and extensive study of foreign professional journals and books. Official PLA delegations are thoughtfully constructed to ensure a range of expertise is included so as to take full advantage of visits to U.S. military commands, units, and schools. Official delegations are supplemented by a limited number of delegations and research fellows sponsored by the U.S. corporate and education communities. Much of what is emerging in the PLA today was examined first (and later advocated) by top PLA leaders in delegations sent to the United States with their extraordinary capability to observe, listen, and report. Visits by U.S. delegations and individual experts to China also have been very beneficial. The Marxian scientific method component of the adaptation or sinification process results in the identification of important foreign concepts, best practices or technologies; the allocation of resources for the purchase of equipment sets; and the formation of a test platform (study group, unit, etc.) to research, test, and evaluate (RT&E) how the new concepts or equipment might be modified and applied in China's unique environment and military culture.

When new military or defense concepts are identified in the West or elsewhere, appropriate civilian as well as military research institutes are requested to study them for their meaning and significance to China. If the concept is developed without much public debate in the West, such as the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), China's researchers will be mute and China's top leaders uninformed. Such was the case when the United States sent its first delegation18 to ask the PRC to abide by MTCR standards without having participated as a member in the development of the standards. The results were predictably negative. Conversely, if the debate is spirited and public, as it was in the United States over the revolution in military affairs (RMA), there will be a flurry of articles in professional Chinese military journals and increasingly in the public media making an array of recommendations for PLA and government action.19 However, any decision by the PLA will be secret and essentially end or redirect the debate (the modern version of the contending of a hundred flowers--a dialectical thought process). The fact that a decision has been made may only be detectable by the lack of discussion. Because of the opaque nature of these processes, Western observers frequently mistake the views expressed during these debates as views widely held in the PLA and by its leaders.

From the PRC media, professional journals, and scholarly exchanges, we know that the experiences of the United States with 20th-century war from Vietnam to the Middle East, Africa, Panama, and Central Europe have been studied in great detail by the PLA and debated in numerous conferences to crystallize the analysis of these events and lessons drawn. However, the actual lineage of any PLA decisions that resulted in changes to strategy, tactics, and organization is much less clear. Most Western conclusions are conjecture based on perceptions of input and announced or observed changes and end products that emanate from China's decisionmaking black box. These conclusions, therefore, should be treated with caution. This was less true during the height of U.S.-PRC military-to-military relations in the mid 1980s.

Early PLA experience with the U.S. military, particularly when they examined the experiences of the U.S. Army in developing the 1st Air Cavalry Division,20 greatly expanded their thinking about the use of test units in the RT&E process. The U.S. experience added an important dimension to their own thinking about how to absorb new or foreign technologies into PLA units. As a result, the PLA has developed a comparable rotary-wing test unit and has applied the test and evaluation process to other parts of the PLA. However, relatively little is known about the actual results of this process.

Technology Acquisition

The PLA purchases technologies, especially costly major foreign military systems, for RT&E purposes. Its priorities take into consideration a complicated set of objectives that go beyond enhancing military capability to include national technology priorities for development, industrial needs, regional needs for development (Hainan Island cannot be developed to its potential with either foreign or domestic investment if conflict with Vietnam is likely). China's military technology acquisition policy is to buy and experiment with the intent of avoiding large and sustained foreign currency expenditures and the creation of a foreign supply and maintenance dependency. Its early experience with the Soviet Union is not to be repeated with anyone. Occasionally, selected equipment will be purchased in sufficient quantity to aid with a specific mission shortfall, such as occurred against Vietnam and India and might occur vis--vis Taiwan, but not enough to equip more than a small number of PLA units.

Examples include the counterbattery radars purchased to defeat Vietnamese artillery in the late 1980s (or so it was argued to the United States); however, since then these radars have been the object of extensive RDT&E and have had application or been considered for use against Russia, India, the United States, and Taiwan.21 The few purchased were insufficient for any sustained conflict. Similarly, a small number of helicopters were purchased from France, Italy, and the United States. In the latter case, the Sikorsky helicopters that the PLA purchased are a prime example of the unreliability of a foreign-based maintenance and logistic system--suspended by the United States in the wake of Tiananmen. Ideal for moving troops and supplies in China's vast roadless terrain, some of these helicopters were tested beyond their rated limits under extreme operating conditions in Tibet, Xinjiang, and elsewhere. However, others are being tested more systematically in the experimental aviation unit previously mentioned to determine how the PLA might more effectively use the helicopters that China will make and deploy. Destroyers for cross-strait and South China Sea operations have had more of an immediate psychological impact than an as-yet practical improvement in either immediate or long-term war fighting capability. However, all of these purchases are advancing China's RT&E ability, and in many cases its defense industry ability, to produce a better product--both commercially and militarily.

National Strategy

The United States and China are large, resource-rich countries with long borders, and both stretch across similar latitude with large extremes in terrain and weather. Both have clear national interests in a secure environment within which to achieve peace and prosperity for their people. Yet despite such macrosimilarities, the countries' geographical asymmetries, historical, cultural, and ideological differences, and different stages of development have resulted in national strategies that frequently conflict in implementation even when objectives may converge. This is especially true with the military component of national security.

Unlike the U.S. military with its global commitments and derivative need for matching maritime and air power strategies, the PLA is a continental military establishment with a matching strategy, despite 40 years of efforts by Mahan-influenced analysts in the West to prove otherwise. Since at least the early 1960s, members of the U.S. China-watching community have made several major efforts to prove that the PLA was pursuing a blue-water strategy that would threaten U.S. interests. However, so far the focus of GSD planners has been on the PLA mission to defend China's borders. Their most critical requirements for the PLA Navy (PLAN) and the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) are to support this mission. The decision process is very wearing. The PLAN focus is the waters that lap China's shores--albeit at an increasing standoff distance and through the lens of the appropriate regional command. From the PLAN vantage point, the greatest potential threat is the United States, followed in changing order by Russia, Japan, and Vietnam. Taiwan is a variant of the U.S. threat equation. The PLAAF has a 360-degree support role, with its greatest concerns being the United States and Russia and the technology and equipment they provide to China's neighbors. Elements of both services have an eye on equipment that could enhance their mission capability further than most PLA seniors and GSD planners are willing to accept as necessary for national defense under current conditions.22

The PRC functional equivalent to the U.S. Program, Planning, and Budgeting System (PPBS) for implementing their strategy supports the continental orientation of the PLA by ensuring that internal security can be maintained and that the borders are adequately defended. Adequacy is driven by the key assumption that a global war remains unlikely in the foreseeable future. Troops (not just ground forces) are positioned to minimize transportation and logistics demands on the national budget. Civil aircraft, rail, and merchant marine stock are assigned civil reserve airfleet-type wartime missions, minimizing 5-year plan pressures to develop a large military equivalent capability. Every effort is made to take advantage of such compensating plans to minimize operational costs and to focus RDT&E and procurement efforts on the capabilities of highest priority.

PLA plans take into consideration the fact that virtually every foreign military establishment that shares a border with the PLA worries about PRC capabilities and sizes its force and diplomacy accordingly. The most likely, as well as the most recent, opposing forces are largely ground plus air and represent about every kind of terrain and type of warfare possible. As for many of China's other neighbors, its intentions have become a matter of increasing concern for planners in Central Asia plus Russia. Some Central Asians have even privately voiced their fear that the current Western development plans of China will directly threaten the sovereign interests of the Central Asian republics, particularly with respect to natural resources beginning with oil. A limited U.S. presence, a byproduct of the war on terrorism, provides balance and reduces concerns.

The PLA has a continental orientation, but not to the exclusion of its maritime interests. Given the large population and industrial centers of the East coast, and recalling the experiences of the Opium War, the PLA feels it is better to have barriers at sea (Great Wall)23 than ashore, especially not on foreign soil. Recognizing the intrinsic value (if only political) in the various contending ideas for providing for China's security, the efforts of PLA planners to balance military modernization by building modern capabilities by mission area on a relatively small scale preempt relatively few significant options. Critical mission capabilities are being enhanced in support of China's still active grand national strategy, the Four Modernizations. The imbalances of the Cold War are being corrected gradually. This equation is sufficiently big and complicated (the big tent); it can enfold enough of the interests of those advocating a blue-water strategy, an anti- or pro-U.S. or Russia strategy, interests in Central Asia and resources, concerns about South Asia, the South China Sea, Taiwan, and even pure national development economics to keep each as a viable option and provide a working consensus. But the pace of modernization is less than optimum (or desired) by any of various advocates--and thus a source of continuous institutional and personal bickering.

The PLA ground forces of tomorrow will eventually be smaller and more capable, built around the results of today's experiments with special operations forces, rapid reaction units, helicopter units, and other "best practices" that they import or develop. The change or "PLA building" will be gradual and almost generational. There is not likely to be sufficient development of China's economic infrastructure, sufficient political stability, or enough resources available in the defense portion of the next three 5-year plans to obviate the need for large numbers of locally garrisoned forces and to allow the complete conversion of its ground forces into smaller, centralized forces that can be moved to the contingency area (border regions) by a modern military transportation system. The construction of such a force will require continued attention to making major advances, which are at the very least time-consuming, in its education system, military and defense civilian personnel systems (including the development of the functional equivalent of a noncommissioned officer corps), logistic and maintenance systems (including system-wide quality control--a huge headache in China), and militia and reserves structures, to mention a few.24

This national strategy is defensive by design, but the size and growing capability of the PLA is hegemonic by sheer presence. As a consequence, future differences in U.S.-PRC national interests and the accompanying differences in strategy could result in military conflict of increasing threat to both, if the two sides do not work to create an alternative that generates mutual trust and confidence.


Beginning with President Richard Nixon, every President has found early in his administration that the critical importance of the U.S.-China relationship and its tendencies to cyclical downturns require his personal commitment to stabilize and advance U.S. interests in the relationship. Each has had to commit the prestige of his office in the face of domestic criticism to advance economic, social, cultural, or military programs that contributed to each nation's sense of security. In part following this pattern, the Bush administration placed its initial emphasis on reinforcing economic cooperation, but was unable to find any way to reverse the downward spiraling sense of mutual insecurity. Irrespective of the cause of the Belgrade embassy bombing or of the EP-3 incident, this insecurity significantly worsened the impact of these accidents on the relationship. If both sides are to overcome their fears of each other and realize their critical interests in peace and prosperity through mutual security, their basic but evolving national security interests must be continuously and cooperatively addressed; the interests of one cannot be ignored or dictated by the other. Here both have failed. There is not now and never has been a bilateral means adequate to this task.

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, there has emerged both an immediate need and an opportunity for the renewal of military-to-military relations in support of mutual security interests. This need, as in the past, is to further intelligence cooperation against a mutual threat--only this time, the threat is not the Soviet Union but the war against terrorism. However, the war is both a reminder and a start to addressing the longer-term need for a framework around which to build a cooperative defense relationship.

The implicit U.S.-PRC partnership of the 1980s was beneficial to the security of both countries as long as the common threat existed and the Soviets responded to the condominium in a manner that benefited both. The military component of the relationship was a major contributor to this success. However, any movement toward the development of a long-term military relationship based on cooperation and thrust was a casualty of Tiananmen, cross-strait events, and the virtual disappearance of the Soviet threat. Mutual fear and distrust of the other's intentions dominate the relationship.

To bring stability and security to the increasingly complex nature of the overall relationship today will require the commitment of the President and the Secretary of Defense to a cooperative defense relationship with China at a time when there is virtually no military relationship. The multiple Foreign Ministry-State Department exchanges (including such security issues as arms control), reemergent annual defense ministerial talks,25 plus economic and trade commissions are insufficient to address the endless number, diversity, and complexity of problems that arise in implementing the results of such talks or insuring that new issues are promptly addressed. Embassies perform a variety of critical functions, including opening doors for new initiatives, but they are neither staffed nor designed to support the continuing, daily task of implementing the relationship. The primary mission of military attaches is intelligence--the collection of information--not building and orchestrating the many other aspects of a military-to-military relationship.

The earlier period of defense cooperation demonstrated that the asymmetries and obstacles in the relationship can be managed if there is a strong, focused partnership, but they will contribute to killing the partnership when mutual security is sacrificed to advance other less vital interests.

The bilateral agenda of national security issues should include the concerns of both sides and recognize that those that are mutual do not necessarily have the same importance to each side. Mutual concerns include the elimination of terrorism, but there are differences that must be addressed concerning what constitutes terrorism and appropriate preemptive actions as well as responses by either side that might degrade the ultimate value of the current cooperation and even contribute to Chinese concerns about encirclement. There are mutual concerns over arms control and technology proliferation that the West has enshrined in such instruments as the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Missile Technology Control Regime, and the Chemical Weapons Convention. However, the PRC was not an architect in most cases and is suspicious of the implications of such agreements for China. Similar suspicions have kept China from any meaningful discussions of nuclear arms limitations and reductions or missile warning systems. The agenda should include ways to mitigate or neutralize Chinese concerns about U.S. deployments in the regions and improving relations, particularly defense, with its neighbors. The same holds for easing concerns in the region about the PRC as a destabilizing power and the concerns of others, including Taiwan, who feel that the U.S.-PRC relationship often works against them.


The administration should remove all remaining military-related sanctions imposed on the PRC since the events in Tiananmen Square and invite the PRC to reopen the bilateral military-to-military relationship with a clean slate.

The military relationship should have an explicit goal to build a long-term relationship of mutual trust, confidence, and respect that will enhance the security of both countries and their interest in peace and prosperity. In committing to this policy, the President should require that personal working relationships be attempted between policymakers in comparable positions of responsibility, similar to the example he has set in other forums.

Counterpart relations should be redefined so that they are between policymakers with comparable functional responsibilities and authority. The relationship should be supported by the respective intelligent communities but not operated through these communities. As a first step, the counterpart of the Secretary of Defense should be the most senior military member of the Central Military Commission after its Chairman, the General Secretary of the CCP, Jiang Zemin.

The two sides should establish a defense commission with a full-time staff to support the development of the bilateral agenda and the implementation of guidance and policy and to monitor and advise the commission on bilateral defense programs to include the adequacy of funding and support provided by the two governments. DOD should be the lead U.S. agency, parallel with the PLA, and should be charged to staff and fund the U.S. commitment to the commission. Other U.S. departments and agencies would provide representation and program funding and support according to their responsibilities, such as the Departments of State in the areas of arms control and arms sales and Energy regarding nuclear weapons design, production, and security.

The sides should expand on the pre-April 2001 very limited number and types of military exchanges and security dialogues--beyond those essential to the success of the global war on terrorism--so as to build trust, confidence, and understanding through practical efforts at cooperation. There are a host of areas, such as military medicine and nuclear surety, where jointly working on practical projects can be of mutual technological and scientific benefit while generating trust and confidence.

Every military department and command tasked to support the U.S.-PRC military relationship should be fully funded for any activities that they may be approved to implement. Creativity and commitment to the military-to-military relationship have been significantly constrained by the "take it out of your hide" approach to funding for most of the bilateral programs of the past.

The President should ensure that military-to-military relations are accepted as a critical means of communications with China and guarantee that they will not be sacrificed by the United States during a crisis or if sanctions are imposed. A defense commission could prove to be a vital means of communications during a crisis and an invaluable source of understanding and assistance in ensuring that sanctions are targeted so as to help achieve the desired objective--in stark contrast to past experiences.


 1Conversations in mid-October 2001 with the defense attach and political councilor at the PRC embassy in Washington, DC, made clear the PRC interest in the resumption of military-to-military relations. However, since the United States cut off the relationship, they pointed out that it is important that the United States initiate the expression of interest in the resumption of these relations. [BACK]

 2For a solid assessment of the role of East Asia in the Quadrennial Defense Review, see Michael McDevitt, "The Quadrennial Defense Review and East Asia," Center for Strategic and International Studies PacNet 43, October 26, 2001, accessed at <>. [BACK]

 3Winston Lord (U.S. ambassador to China), "Sino-American Relations: No Time for Complacency," speech to the National Council of U.S.-China Trade, May 28, 1986. Cited in Edward W. Ross (Assistant for China, Office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense, International Security Affairs), "U.S.-China Military Relations and the Implications for ASEAN," Fourth U.S.-Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Conference on ASEAN and China, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, January 5-8, 1987. [BACK]

 4Ross, 4-17. [BACK]

 5Drawn from interviews and discussions with more than 100 senior U.S. military and civilian officials and key staff members involved in U.S.-PRC military-to-military relations. [BACK]

 6Based on author's interviews and conversation with participants. [BACK]

 7Edward Timperlake and William C. Triplett II, Red Dragon Rising (Washington, DC: Regnery, 1999). [BACK]

 8The major difference between any similar comparison with Russia is that extensive political reform came before economic reform in Russia, whereas the PRC has chosen to advance economic reform at a much faster rate than political reform with less human misery by most Asian calculations. [BACK]

 9President George H.W. Bush announced a list of retaliatory measures against the PRC that included the "suspension of all government-to-government sales and commercial exports of weapons, suspension of visits between U.S. and Chinese military leaders." George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft, A World Transformed (New York: Knopf, 1998), 89-90. His statement initially left hope on both sides that only high-level military-to-military exchanges would be terminated; however, during the implementation of his instructions, all exchanges were terminated. [BACK]

10Bill Gertz, The China Threat, How the People's Republic Targets America (Washington, DC: Regnery, 2000); Richard Bernstein and Ross H. Munro, The Coming Conflict with China (New York: Knopf, 1997). [BACK]

11The best known in the United States is Tom Clancy, The Bear and the Dragon (New York: Berkley Books, 2000). [BACK]

12In effect, a modern name for a united front action. [BACK]

13Kenneth Allen and Eric McVadon, China's Military Relations (Washington, DC: The Henry L. Stimson Center, October 1999); Kenneth W. Allen, "Showing the Red Flag: The PLA Navy as an Instrument of China's Foreign Policy," paper presented at PLA Navy Building at the Start of a New Century, cosponsored by the Center for Naval Analyses and the Chinese Council for Advanced Policy Studies (Taipei), June 2001, Washington, DC. [BACK]

14Constitution of the People's Republic of China, December 4, 1982. Also found in the party constitution. [BACK]

15The description of the organizational differences is based on discussions with PLA staff officers and commanders from the various general departments and regional commands of the PLA from 1983-2001 about mutually frustrating experiences. For an understanding of many of the historical factors governing PLA organization, see William W. Whitson with Chen-hsia Huang, The Chinese High Command, A History of Communist Military Politics, 1927-71 (New York: Praeger, 1973), and Michael D. Swaine, The Military & Political Succession in China (Santa Monica, CA: RAND, 1992). [BACK]

16For a better understanding of the historical and social antecedents of this term, see Frederic Wakeman, Jr., Strangers at the Gate (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1966). [BACK]

17Based on visits to most of the PLA universities, academies, and senior service schools and experience with approximately 150 U.S. or PLA delegations and more than 50 research fellowships, 1984-2001. [BACK]

18Headed by Michael Armacost, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, 1987. [BACK]

19Michael Pillsbury has collected a selection of these articles in Chinese Views of Future Warfare (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 1997). [BACK]

20Lectures about U.S. experiences in Vietnam and in developing its air cavalry concepts were given in China in the mid-1980s by a number of retired U.S. general officers while on tours sponsored by the United States Information Agency and others. These lectures have been studied and have played a role in shaping PLA policy. There was little interest in the United States in reciprocal visits. [BACK]

21While Army attache, the author participated as a member of the team that negotiated the sale. [BACK]

22Alfred D. Wilhelm, Jr., China and Security in the Asian Pacific Region Through 2010 (Alexandria, VA: The CNA Corporation, 1996). [BACK]

23Bernard D. Cole, The Great Wall at Sea (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2001). [BACK]

24Paul H.B. Godwin, "The PLA Faces the Twenty-First Century: Reflections on Technology, Doctrine, Strategy, and Operations," in China's Military Faces the Future, ed. James R. Lilley and David Shambough (Washington, DC: American Enterprise Institute, 1999). [BACK]

25Defense Consultative Conference talks. [BACK]

Table of Contents  I  Chapter Eighteen

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