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Congressional Research Service, "U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress," November 20, 2013

This CRS report was written by Shirley A. Kan, specialist in Asian security affairs.
November 20, 2013

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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 reengaged 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 Administration complies with legislation overseeing dealings with the PLA and pursues 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). A particular issue is whether the President is required to issue waivers of sanctions. Skeptics and proponents of military exchanges with the PRC have debated whether the contacts achieve results in U.S. objectives and whether the contacts contribute to the PLA’s warfighting capability that might harm U.S. and allied 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; military-civilian coordination; transparency and reciprocity; tension reduction over Taiwan; weapons nonproliferation; talks on nuclear, missile, space, and/or cyber domains; counterterrorism; and POW/MIA accounting.

Policymakers could review the approach to mil-to-mil contacts, given concerns about potential crises and conflicts. U.S. officials have faced challenges in gaining cooperation from the PLA. The PLA has tried to use its suspensions of exchanges while blaming U.S.-only “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 disputes showed some limits to mil-to-mil talks and PLA restraint. Still, at the Strategic and Economic Dialogue (S&ED) in July 2009, President Obama called for military contacts to diminish disputes with Beijing. The U.S. articulations in 2011-2012 of a strategic “rebalancing” to Asia (or “pivot” to the Pacific) raised an issue of how to deal with China’s challenges. The Administration’s “rebalance” entails not only an expansion of engagement with the PLA, but also increasing exercises. The Defense Secretary visited in September 2012 and invited the PLA Navy to participate for the first time in the U.S.-led maritime exercise, RIMPAC 2014. The PLA Navy’s potential participation at RIMPAC near Hawaii has raised concerns in Congress and elsewhere. The U.S. Navy has started to increase some “interoperability” with the PLA Navy.

In 2010, 2011, 2012, and 2013, the Obama Administration was late in submitting an annual required report on security developments involving the PRC, cooperation, and mil-to-mil contacts. Legislation in the 113th Congress includes the FY2014 NDAA (H.R. 1960 and S. 1197), FY2014 Defense Appropriations Act (H.R. 2397), and FY2014 Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations (S. 1372).

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