- The Limits of U.S.-China Military Cooperation:Lessons from 1995–1999
The United States and China began the 1990s with virtually no bilateral relationship. After the 1989 crackdown in Tiananmen Square, Washington had suspended all defense contacts and military-related commerce with Beijing. By the end of the 1990s, the United States and the People's Republic of China (PRC) had ridden the proverbial roller coaster, with periods of intense dialogue and interaction coupled with times of profound tension and alienation. Military ties, which displayed the greatest volatility, remain one of the most intriguing dimensions of the Sino-U.S. relationship. During the past five years of the George W. Bush administration, military relations have lagged behind other elements of official state-to-state ties. The reasons for this relative inactivity and caution in bilateral security interactions are complex, including a legacy of spy scandals, differences in regional and global policy agendas, and the potential for a military clash over Taiwan.
The Bush administration's approach to military engagement with China undoubtedly also reflects some of the lessons learned during President Bill Clinton's administration. Bounded on one side by the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crisis and on the other by the May 1999 accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, this period provides an instructive case study on the impediments to securing and sustaining effective Sino-U.S. defense ties. From 1995 to 1999, senior U.S. civilian and military officials worked to create an integrated framework for security engagement with Beijing. Several events drove this endeavor, which initially enjoyed broad bipartisan and [End Page 169] expert support in Washington. First, a series of near clashes occurred between forward-deployed U.S. naval forces and units of the Chinese navy. These incidents demonstrated to U.S. commanders the need to negotiate rules of the road for military operations in the western Pacific. Second, senior People's Liberation Army (PLA) officials persistently complained to their Washington counterparts about U.S. military aircraft flying precariously close to Chinese airspace. They claimed these flights deliberately sought to expose various Chinese air defense systems and protocols. Third, the heightened tensions resulting from China's provocative military moves during the Taiwan Strait confrontation led some in Washington to regret the lack of a deeper defense dialogue before the crisis, which would have helped communicate mutual red lines. Finally, U.S. civilian and military leaders in the Pentagon naturally wanted to pursue better relations with their Chinese counterparts, given their country's growing military reach. The objective never was engagement for engagement's sake. Instead, U.S. policymakers sought to convince Chinese interlocutors of the correctness of the U.S. worldview on such issues as military transparency, international law, and China's need to participate more actively in multilateral security institutions.
Despite the widely reported problems regarding transparency, reciprocity, and espionage, these factors represented only some of the much more fundamental set of strategic misunderstandings that impeded realization of the administration's ambitious agenda for military engagement during the late 1990s. Why did both sides seek closer defense ties, and what were some of the resulting agreements? What were the missed signals, faulty assumptions, and strategic disparities that ultimately derailed efforts at Sino-U.S. military engagement? Today, as the Bush administration modestly considers revitalizing military ties and with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's visit to China in October 2005, the first during his current tenure in office, most of these lessons remain relevant. In particular, experience has shown that such military contacts alone have little effect on the overall U.S.-Chinese relationship. Although some believe that defense engagement improves bilateral relations, the Sino-U.S. experience shows that the inverse relationship is more common. Military-to-military ties typically become significantly more productive only after the broader bilateral relationship improves. The many deep-rooted sources of tension that persist between the two countries today suggest the need for modest expectations about near-term progress both in military ties and broader relations. [End Page 170]
Promoting Sino-U.S. Military Cooperation
The U.S. and Chinese governments had several key motivations to improve military...