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Congressional Research Service, "U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress," August 6, 2009

This CRS report was written by Shirley A. Kan, specialist in Asian security affairs.
August 6, 2009

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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 March 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 the 111th Congress include whether the Obama Administration has complied with legislation overseeing dealings with the PLA and has pursued a program of contacts with the PLA that advances a prioritized list of U.S. security interests. Oversight legislation includes the Foreign Relations Authorization Act for FY1 990-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. U.S. interests in military contacts with China include communication, conflict prevention, and crisis management; transparency and reciprocity; tension reduction over Taiwan; weapons nonproliferation; strategic nuclear and space talks; counterterrorism; and accounting for POW/MIAs. 

U.S. defense 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). Also, the PLA has tried to use its suspensions of exchanges (the latest in October 2008) while blaming U.S. “obstacles” (including arms sales to Taiwan, legal restrictions on contacts with the PLA, and the Pentagon’s annual report to Congress on PRC Military Power). The PRC’s harassment of U.S. surveillance ships (in March and May 2009) have shown the limits to the value of  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. On June 25, the House passed H.R. 2647, NDAA for FY 2010, that would change the requirement in P.L. 106-65 for that annual report to shift the focus to security developments involving the PRC, add cooperation, and fold in another requirement to report on mil-to-mil contacts. On July 23, the Senate passed its version that did not include such changes and would require a Presidential report on Taiwan’s air force.

The full report can be found here.

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