Persistent Barriers to Sino-American Military Dialogue

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 18

Military ties between China and the United States have lagged behind their economic and political relationships throughout the Bush administration. In recent months, however, exchanges between their national security communities have increased. Senior defense officials from both countries have made exchange visits, their military institutions have hosted one another’s delegations and Chinese and U.S. naval vessels are scheduled to conduct a joint exercise this month. Although both governments perceive certain advantages in increasing these military engagements, experience suggests the need for tempered expectations regarding the outcomes of the defense dialogue.

Renewed Military Exchanges

In October 2005, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld visited China for the first time since the April 2001 EP-3 incident in which a Chinese warplane collided with a U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft in international airspace near China’s Hainan Island. In addition to agreeing in principle to resume large-scale military exchanges, Rumsfeld also visited what was identified as the Second Artillery command, making him the first American official to see the headquarters of China’s ballistic missile force (Zhongguo Tongxun She, October 22, 2005). The following spring, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) hosted several delegations from the U.S. Pacific Command. These encounters, along with Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington in April, paved the way for an increase in the number of regular joint consultations on maritime safety, humanitarian disaster relief and environmental protection (Xinhua, May 10).

In June, China sent a ten-person delegation that included one high-ranking officer from each of the military branches to the major Pacific Command “Valiant Shield 2006” exercises in Guam. In July, Guo Boxiong, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC) and China’s second-highest ranking military leader after President Hu, spent a week in the United States meeting with top national security officials and touring the San Diego headquarters of the U.S. Third Fleet. Qian Lihua, deputy director of the foreign affairs office at the Ministry of Defense, characterized the visit as “the most important Chinese military exchange with another country this year” (Xinhua, July 18). Seeking to elevate the bilateral military dialogue even further, some U.S. officials have urged for the relaxation of the provision in the U.S. FY2000 defense authorization bill that prohibits contacts that might give the PLA improper access to advanced U.S. military capabilities. On May 15, Admiral William J. Fallon, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told a press conference while in Shenyang that “whether all of the restrictions are lifted or modified is for the Congress to decide, but I believe that we just need to start moving down this road, and the sooner we do it the better off we’re going to be” [1].

Perceived Benefits

Several dynamics have been driving China and the United States to intensify bilateral military exchanges. First, the PLA’s continued transformation into an organization that regularly operates beyond Chinese territory has brought its units into more frequent contact with U.S. forces, especially in the western Pacific Ocean near China’s coast [2]. Chinese and U.S. defense officials see a direct dialogue between their defense establishments as a way to avert possible military confrontations resulting from accidents and misperceptions. In particular, Beijing and Washington want to prevent a repeat of the April 2001 collision crisis, which crippled bilateral defense cooperation during much of the Bush administration’s first term.

Second, China will soon have the second most powerful conventional armed forces in the Asia Pacific region after the United States. Although predicting China’s future trajectory is complex, its extraordinarily high economic growth rates combined with Beijing’s commitment to military modernization suggest that the PLA will eventually surpass the military capacities of Japan, Taiwan and other East Asian powers—if it has not done so already. Since Chinese and U.S. leaders tend to perceive each other’s country as their most dangerous potential regional adversary, they naturally seek a better understanding of their counterparts’ defense and foreign policies. Through such insights, they hope to both avert a deliberate conflict and more effectively wage one should it nonetheless occur.

Third, both Chinese and U.S. officials believe that military contacts would help alter the other country’s policies and perceptions. Chinese leaders would like to convince the U.S. government to reduce its military ties with Taiwan and resume the selling of defense-related equipment to Beijing. More generally, they want Washington to stop viewing China’s military modernization as a threat to the United States or its allies. As Yang Yi, director of the Institute for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University of China, stated, “China and the United States should make candid exchanges of views during the military exchanges, not avoiding differences and reducing doubts of each other’s strategic intentions, so as to safeguard the healthy and steady growth of bilateral relations” (Xinhua, May 18).

In the short term, U.S. officials believe that the military dialogue could help deter Chinese officials from attacking Taiwan or pursuing other “adventurous” policies based on misperceptions about U.S. resolve or capability to defend its interests in the Asia Pacific. As former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard B. Myers stated, “The value of our increasing military-to-military relationship is to provide transparency both ways on our two militaries and to avoid misunderstandings that might occur” [3]. Over the long term, they hope to dissuade Beijing from challenging U.S.-supported regional security arrangements by convincing Beijing that it would benefit more from becoming an important stakeholder in the existing international system than from attempting to change it. Admiral Fallow described6. such a view when he testified before the House Armed Services Committee, “It is important to advance our mutual military relationship, not only to ease tension and suspicion but to encourage, by example, Chinese participation in the full range of international engagement” (CQ Congressional Testimony, March 9).

Limitations on Military Engagement

Yet, recurring problems have repeatedly derailed efforts to establish a sustained Sino-American military dialogue. The de facto alliance between the two countries in the late 1970s and 1980s ended abruptly with the simultaneous demise of the mutual Soviet military threat and the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989. Although the second Clinton administration launched a sustained campaign of defense engagement with China, the initiative made only modest progress before the May 1999 accidental U.S. bombing of China’s Belgrade embassy froze defense ties. For their part, Chinese leaders have repeatedly expressed frustration that bilateral military contacts have not led the United States to end military sanctions against Beijing or curtail defense ties with Taipei.

Several past impediments to improved Sino-American defense ties persist today. First, U.S. officials have long called on the Chinese government to make its military budget and planning more transparent so as to minimize misunderstandings. During their respective visits to Beijing, Secretaries of Defense William Perry in 1994 and Donald Rumsfeld in 2005 stressed that China’s excessive military secrecy alarmed its neighbors and impeded China’s integration into regional security institutions. (New York Times, October 19, 1994; New York Times, October 20, 2005). Nevertheless, Chinese leaders continue to evince a strong aversion to genuine military transparency and have taken few genuine steps to address U.S. complaints about a perceived lack of reciprocity in their defense relationship. Although the Chinese government has begun issuing white papers on security and defense policies, they are rich in generalities about China’s good intentions and sparse in specifics about actual Chinese practices. Furthermore, U.S. officials remain much more interested in expanding the military dialogue and receiving reciprocal access to sensitive military facilities.

Several considerations account for Beijing’s reticence. For starters, Chinese policymakers fear that excessive transparency could provide Americans with insights into China’s military vulnerabilities. Influenced by a martial tradition that emphasizes strategic deception, the Chinese also believe that opaqueness assists in deterring potential adversaries by complicating their military planning. Chinese policymakers also do not want to draw foreign attention to their continued military buildup.

Second, both governments’ defense policymakers have resisted external constraints on their military operations and capabilities. The Bush administration has stressed the need for flexibility in meeting new threats. As leaders of a rising military power, Beijing also does not want to codify existing disparities in force capacities or operating patterns, which favor the United States. For example, China has refused to join the Russian-American strategic arms reduction process on the grounds that Moscow and Washington need to make much deeper cuts in their superior nuclear arsenals before Beijing will enter the dialogue [4].

As a result of these factors, Sino-American negotiations have yielded only weak arms control and confidence-building measures. The January 1998 U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) lacked the detailed “rules of the road” provisions found in the 1972 U.S.-Soviet Incidents at Sea Agreement or the 1989 U.S.-Soviet Prevention of Dangerous Military Incidents Agreement and failed either to prevent or help resolve the 2001 EP-3 incident. Beijing has also refused to accept Washington’s long-standing proposal to establish a direct hotline between the Pentagon and the Chinese Defense Ministry. Whereas U.S. planners believe that a military-to-military hotline could facilitate communications during a crisis, China’s political leadership wants to ensure tight control over the Sino-American dialogue in any military confrontation.

Third, both governments have regularly held their military ties hostage to developments in their overall political relationship. Their bilateral defense relationship has traditionally served as a proverbial canary in the coal mine, acutely vulnerable to harmful environmental changes. Adverse political events—such as the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, the 1999 embassy bombing and the 2001 EP-3 incident—have repeatedly led one side or the other to curtail military contacts as a form of protest or retaliation. Despite the expanding Sino-American military dialogue, another Taiwan confrontation, a flare-up in the East China Sea dispute or any other crisis between Beijing and Washington could again abruptly freeze defense relations between the two countries.


Chinese officials remain suspicious of the Bush administration, believing that it aspires to implement its liberty doctrine in China through regime change and is trying to constrain Chinese military power at least until then. Likewise, U.S. leaders remain apprehensive over China’s military buildup and its aspirations for regional hegemony. Nevertheless, the endemic distrust between both governments does not present an insuperable obstacle to a fruitful Sino-American military dialogue. During the Cold War, Soviet and U.S. leaders distrusted one another at least as much as Beijing and Washington do today. The Soviet-American defense dialogue eventually produced major agreements limiting both the size of their military forces as well as their permissible operations. Already, China and the United States have shown that they can cooperate on economic and regional security issues, without extensive military ties. It is precisely because Beijing and Washington are neither outright allies nor active adversaries that a military dialogue and other modest exchanges are both possible and prudent.



2. Shirley Kan, “U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress” (May 10, 2005, Congressional Research Services: The Library of Congress),


4. “China and Nuclear Disarmament/Arms Control,” at