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Friday, August 9, 2013

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 maritime confrontations (including in 2009).

Issues for Congress include whether the Obama Administration has complied with legislation
overseeing dealings with the PLA and pursued contacts with the PLA that advance a prioritized
set of U.S. security interests, especially the operational 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
achieved results in 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 place on the contacts overly extends leverage to the PLA. Some
believe talks can serve U.S. interests that include conflict avoidance/crisis management; militarycivilian coordination; transparency and reciprocity; tension reduction over Taiwan; weapons
nonproliferation; nuclear/missile/space/cyber talks; counterterrorism; and POW/MIA accounting.

Policymakers could review the approach to mil-to-mil contacts, given concerns about crises. U.S.
officials have faced challenges in cooperation from the PLA. The PLA has tried to use its
suspensions of exchanges while blaming U.S. “obstacles” (including arms sales to Taiwan,
FY2000 NDAA, and air and naval reconnaissance operations).

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, since the
Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July 2009, President Obama has called for military
contacts to diminish disputes with China. In 2010 and 2011, the PLA criticized U.S. arms sales to
Taiwan and claimed to “suspend” U.S.-PRC military contacts. Then, in 2011, the PLA hosted the
Defense Secretary in January, and the PLA Chief of General Staff visited in May. The U.S.
announcements in 2011-2012 of a strategic rebalancing to Asia (or “pivot” to the Pacific) raised
an issue of implications for military ties to advance U.S. interests. The Administration included
an expansion of cooperation with the PLA. The Defense Secretary visited in September 2012 and
invited the PLA Navy to participate in the U.S.-led maritime exercise, RIMPAC 2014. The
PLAN’s potential participation at RIMPAC near Hawaii has raised concerns in Congress and
elsewhere. In April 2013, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel invited PRC Defense Minister Chang
Wanquan to visit. For required reporting, in 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Administration was
late in submitting an annual report on security developments involving the PRC, cooperation, and
mil-to-mil contacts. The NDAA for FY2013 (P.L. 112-239) adds additional requirements to
strengthen the reporting on PRC military and security challenges. Other legislation includes the
FY2014 NDAA (H.R. 1960 and S. 1197) and FY2014 Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 2397).

Date of Report: July 30, 2013
Number of Pages: 82
Order Number: RL32496
Price: $29.95

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