Skip to main content

Can U.S.-China Defense Ties Improve?

Richard Weitz

Notwithstanding the difficulties, the Barack Obama administration has continued the efforts of previous US administrations and sought to sustain a comprehensive and mutual profitable military relationship with Beijing. American policy makers worry that the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) domestic and international isolation could present problems given the Chinese military’s importance in Beijing’s national security decisions.

In the US view, the PLA needs more contact with the outside world to understand it better, which Washington and other outsiders hope would reduce its inordinate fears of the United States and decrease somewhat the prospects of war through miscalculation.

During its first term, the Obama administration made considerable exertions hard to initiative a bilateral Strategic Security Dialogue, in which senior uniformed military officers from the PLA and the Pentagon have, for the first time, joined top civilian officials from both countries. They consider its launch a major accomplishment given the 25-year US quest to get the Chinese military in the same room with senior Chinese civilians and their US counterparts.

One reason for these appropriately modest expectations is that, despite the vigorous efforts of several different US administrations since 1990, little concrete progress has been achieved in the military dialogue between the United States and China.

The two defense communities have negotiated several confidence-building measures that have helped them understand better the other side’s security concerns, but these instruments are highly constrained and easily upended by external shocks. Incidents between US and PLA ships and planes near China have repeatedly disrupted their bilateral relations. Disputes over Taiwan and other issues have regularly led to the suspension of China-US defense relations.

Limited dialogue

The limited Pentagon-PLA dialogue and mutual understanding is increasingly disturbing given the expanding range and activities of the Chinese military in recent years. Whereas PLA commanders once focused on winning a protracted war of attrition against a foreign invader, now they are acquiring the capacity to fight high-intensity conflicts beyond China’s borders. The PLA Navy, previously a coastal defense force, is becoming a fleet capable of defending the PRC’s maritime interests in distant waters. China’s Air Force now flies to Turkey to engage in joint exercises. The PLA communications, logistics, and other support networks for all its services are becoming increasingly sophisticated. Finally, while China’s nuclear forces remain modest, its cyber capabilities are becoming sufficiently strong to disrupt and possibly deter the US and other foreign militaries from future interventions against Chinese interests.

The PLA’s growing global presence will generate more occasions when Chinese and US military forces operate in close proximity, elevating the risks of further bilateral military incidents, whether due to accidents, miscalculation, or other causes. The PLA now regularly sends warships to fight pirates off Somalia or planes to help evacuate Chinese nationals from Libya, Syria, and other regions of conflict. The PLA has also become one of the major contributors to UN peacekeeping missions and might acquire overseas bases in coming years. The PLA’s increasing capabilities have also empowered Beijing policymakers to more vigorously challenge Pentagon practices China has long opposed.

Many obstacles have impeded Pentagon-PLA ties. Contentious territorial and sovereignty disputes encompass Beijing’s expansive maritime claims as well as its insistence that Taiwan belongs to the Chinese mainland and that US arms sales to that island constitute interference in its internal affairs. Beijing has frequently protested the presence of US surveillance ships and planes in its self-declared exclusive economic zone despite their staying outside China’s internationally recognized territorial waters. These conflicting interpretations led to the EP-3 plane collision in 2001, China’s harassment of the Impeccable and other U.S. ships in early 2009, and other clashes that will become more frequent as the PLA’s capabilities to enforce its zones expand.

Diplomatic disputes

These specific territorial-cum-sovereignty disputes have augmented, and been amplified by, the strained China-US political ties due to their diverging geopolitical perspectives and values. Policy makers in both countries know their history well as can easily foresee a clash of destinies as China rises and the United States responds. These mutual suspicions have provided an unhelpful backdrop for good military relations.

Adverse political-military developments have often upended China-US defense ties. For example, Washington’s mistaken bombing of the PRC’s Belgrade Embassy in the 1999 Kosovo air war led Beijing to suspend defense contacts for months.

The Chinese government has seen suspending military exchanges as a convenient means of signaling unhappiness with various US policies, especially Washington’s arms sales to Taiwan. The United States has done likewise to protest the PLA’s violent crackdown at Tiananmen in June 1989 and to limit Chinese defense espionage activities.

Although in public the PRC government has declared its commitment to military transparency, the PLA has taken few steps to address US complaints about the lack of reciprocity in bilateral defense openness. In practice, the PLA’s inferior capabilities lead China to reject moves toward defense transparency for fear that the Pentagon would exploit the increased intelligence to Beijing’s disadvantage. PRC policymakers want to obscure the full extent of their military buildup. In the one area where Beijing would benefit from more mutual military ties, US restrictions impede bilateral technology transfers. Furthermore, a Chinese strategic tradition that emphasizes deception leads many PLA strategists to see opaqueness as helping deter potential foes by frustrating their military planning.

Unfortunately, the PLA’s penchant for secrecy increases the risks of misunderstanding and miscalculation. It also alarms China’s neighbors, who strengthen their own military capabilities just in case their worst-case scenarios regarding the PLA’s goals and capabilities prove accurate. Beijing then responds in reciprocal fashion, contributing to the East Asian arms race that has been gathering momentum in recent years.

Related Articles

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO): Rebirth and Regeneration?

Richard Weitz

Members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) like to boast that their organization is special. The Chinese, for example, refer to the SCO’...

Continue Reading

Ma Touts Merits of National Security Policy

Seth Cropsey

President Ma Ying-jeou said Oct. 7 that the government’s three-pillar national security policy has paid handsome dividends, with relations between T...

Watch Now

How Authoritarian States 'Win' Internationally

John Lee

The 17th Asian Games in Incheon, Republic of Korea (or South Korea) concluded over the weekend – not that you would know about it given the lack of ...

Continue Reading