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Congressional Research Service, "U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress," October 25, 2012

This CRS report was written by Shirley A. Kan, specialist in Asian security affairs.
October 25, 2012

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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 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.

In 2010 and 2011, the PLA criticized U.S. arms sales to Taiwan and claimed to “suspend” many U.S.-PRC military contacts. Then, in 2011, the PLA hosted Secretary Gates in January, and the PLA Chief of General Staff visited in May. In May 2012, General Liang Guanglie visited as the first PRC Defense Minister to do so since 2003. Defense Secretary Panetta visited in September.

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, 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 (S&ED) in July 2009, President Obama called for military contacts to diminish disputes with China. The U.S. military seeks to expand cooperation with the PLA. The NDAA for FY2010 (P.L. 111-84) amended P.L. 106-65 for the annual 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. However, the Administration was late in submitting this report in 2010, 2011, and 2012. Enacted as P.L. 112-81 on December 31, 2011, the FY2012 NDAA required reporting on cyber threats but did not require a change back to the original title, while adding a requirement for a report from the Defense Secretary before any waiver of a ban on defense procurement from PLA companies. H.R. 4310 and S. 3254, NDAA for FY2013, would strengthen the annual reporting on military and security challenges and mil-to-mil engagement.

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