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Wednesday, December 22, 2010

U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress

Shirley A. Kan
Specialist in Asian Security Affairs

This CRS report, updated as warranted, discusses policy issues regarding military-to-military (mil-to-mil) contacts with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and provides a record of major contacts and crises since 1993. The United States suspended military contacts with China and imposed sanctions on arms sales in response to the Tiananmen Crackdown in 1989. In 1993, the Clinton Administration re-engaged with the top PRC leadership, including China’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Renewed military exchanges with the PLA have not regained the closeness reached in the 1980s, when U.S.-PRC strategic cooperation against the Soviet Union included U.S. arms sales to China. Improvements and deteriorations in overall bilateral relations have affected military contacts, which were close in 1997-1998 and 2000, but marred by the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, mistaken NATO bombing of a PRC embassy in 1999, the EP- 3 aircraft collision crisis in 2001, and aggressive naval confrontations (including in 2009).

In 2001, President Bush continued the policy of engagement with China, but the Pentagon skeptically reviewed and cautiously resumed mil-to-mil contacts. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, in 2002, resumed the Defense Consultative Talks (DCT) with the PLA (first held in 1997) and, in 2003, hosted General Cao Gangchuan, a Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and Defense Minister. General Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited China in January 2004, as the highest ranking U.S. military officer to do so since November 2000. Rumsfeld visited China in 2005, the first visit by a defense secretary since William Cohen’s visit in 2000. In 2006, a CMC Vice Chairman, General Guo Boxiong, made the first visit to the United States by the highest ranking PLA commander after 1998.

Issues for Congress include whether the Obama Administration has complied with legislation overseeing dealings with the PLA and pursued contacts with the PLA that advances a prioritized set of U.S. security interests, especially the safety of U.S. military personnel. Oversight legislation includes the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY1990-FY1991 (P.L. 101-246) and National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for FY2000 (P.L. 106-65). Skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with the PRC have debated whether the contacts have significant value for achieving U.S. objectives and whether the contacts have contributed to the PLA’s warfighting capabilities that might harm U.S. security interests. Some have argued about whether the value that U.S. officials have placed on the contacts overly extends leverage to the PLA. Officials believe talks can serve U.S. interests that include conflict prevention and crisis management; transparency and reciprocity; tension reduction over Taiwan; weapons nonproliferation; nuclear/space/cyber talks; counterterrorism; and accounting for POW/MIAs.

Policymakers could review the approach to mil-to-mil contacts, given concerns about crises. U.S. officials have reported inadequate cooperation from the PLA, including denials of port visits at Hong Kong and aid to U.S. Navy ships in distress (Thanksgiving 2007). The PLA has tried to use its suspensions of exchanges while blaming U.S. “obstacles” (including arms sales to Taiwan, legal restrictions on contacts, and the Pentagon’s reports to Congress on the PLA). The PRC’s harassment of U.S. surveillance ships (in 2009) and increasing assertiveness in maritime areas have shown the limits to mil-to-mil talks and PLA restraint. Still, at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue in July 2009, President Obama called for military contacts to diminish disputes with China. The NDAA for FY2010 (P.L. 111-84) amended P.L. 106-65 for the report on PRC military power to expand the focus to security developments involving the PRC, add cooperative elements, and fold in another report on mil-to-mil contacts. The two sides held a round of the DCT in December 2010, and the PLA belatedly invited Secretary Gates to visit in January 2011.

Date of Report: December 14, 2010
Number of Pages: 69
Order Number: RL32496
Price: $29.95

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