In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Why Can’t We Be Friends?Assessing the Operational Value of Engaging PLA Leadership
  • James P. Nolan (bio)

china, united states, people’s liberation army, military-to-military relations

[End Page 45]

executive summary

This article examines if trust can be established between U.S. and Chinese military leaders and what operational value can be derived from those personal relationships.

main argument

U.S. military flag officer/general officer (FOGO) engagement with counterparts from the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is valuable for strengthening both military-to-military and diplomatic relations. Such engagement is not valuable, however, because it builds trust-based relations or yields significant operational value. For the purpose of this study, operational value is defined as limited crisis resolution, greater interoperability, and increased safety of operations over a three- to four-year time frame. Out of eleven retired three- and four-star FOGOs with active duty experience engaging with the PLA who were interviewed for this study, none had established trust with their active duty counterparts or generated operational value as a result of engagement. Instead, this study finds that FOGO personal relations have minimal operational value due to numerous individual barriers that prevent the building of trust between counterparts and institutional barriers that prevent the translation of FOGO relationships into operational value.

policy implications

  • • U.S. expectations of large operational returns on significant resources invested in FOGO engagement with PLA counterparts may prove ill-founded if these expectations are not grounded in an understanding of the individual and institutional barriers that exist to prevent those relationships from yielding tangible operational value.

  • • If the U.S. were to adopt a misplaced faith in the value of personal relationships with PLA counterparts as a primary means to de-escalate future crises, U.S. policymakers would be placed at a disadvantage for quickly or effectively resolving future crises with China. [End Page 46]

When it comes to U.S. relations with China’s military, trust is the watchword of the year. Chinese headlines trumpet the success of People’s Liberation Army (PLA) leadership “trust missions” to visit with U.S. counterparts.1 During an early 2014 trip to Beijing as part of “frank, honest, and important” talks with Chinese counterparts, U.S. Army chief of staff General Ray Odierno said, “It’s important for us that we emphasize engagement, dialogue and understanding and build trust between our militaries.”2 The face of the military-to-military (henceforth mil-mil) relationship between the nations has become the photograph of a smiling senior U.S. military officer in a handshake with his PLA counterpart. The recent emphasis on building trust between U.S. and PLA flag officer/general officer (FOGO) counterparts suggests that operational value may be derived from these personal relationships that will benefit U.S. objectives in the Pacific.

This article seeks to answer this very question: What operational value comes from U.S. military leaders’ personal relationships with Chinese counterparts? The article is divided into five sections:

  • ≈ pp. 47–54 lay out the hypothesis and methodology of the study.

  • ≈ pp. 55–58 provide background on the U.S. strategic objectives for Sino-U.S. military engagement and the current status of the mil-mil relationship.

  • ≈ pp. 58–66 examine the individual barriers to building trust between FOGO counterparts.

  • ≈ pp. 66–74 consider the institutional barriers to creating operational value from FOGO relationships.

  • ≈ pp. 74–78 conclude the article with a brief discussion on the way ahead for U.S.-PLA FOGO relations and the overall mil-mil relationship.

hypothesis and methodology

The starting hypothesis for this research is that U.S. military FOGO relationships with PLA counterparts have minimal operational value due to individual barriers that prevent the building of trust between counterparts and institutional barriers that prevent the translation of FOGO relationships into operational value. To the extent that I find evidence that there was a lack [End Page 47] of trust present in FOGO relationships, and that as a result those relationships provided minimal operational value, then my hypothesis would appear to be affirmed. However, if I find evidence that indicates personal relationships between FOGOs and their counterparts not only produced trust but also produced...


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pp. 45-79
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