Are China and US Destined to Clash?
Image Credit: US Navy

Are China and US Destined to Clash?


In a recent piece in the New York Times, Mike Mullen, Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, stressed the importance of improving Sino-US military relations.

Mullen acknowledged that PLA-Pentagon ties have frequently been characterized by ‘misunderstanding and suspicion,’ and complained that Beijing continues to employ bilateral defence ties as ‘a sort of thermostat to communicate displeasure. When they don’t like something we do, they cut off ties. That can’t be the model anymore.’

Actually, curtailing military exchanges has been a favoured diplomatic mechanism for Beijing and Washington to signal displeasure with a particular development in the overall relationship. The Chinese readily suspended various military visits, exchanges, and other defence contacts after the 1999 Belgrade Embassy bombing, the 2001 EP-3 collision, and in retaliation for the announcement of major US arms sales to Taiwan. Most recently, Beijing froze US-Chinese defence cooperation for the remainder of the Bush administration after the White House notified Congress in October 2008 of its plans to sell Taiwan $6.5 billion worth of arms. Then, the Chinese government suspended senior-level defence visits, rejected US Navy ship requests to take leave at China’s ports, and cancelled meetings on humanitarian assistance, disaster relief, and WMD non-proliferation—disrupting almost a dozen military exchange programmes in the process.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

But the United States has also disrupted bilateral military exchanges with China. The Tiananmen crackdown of June 4, 1989, when PLA troops forcibly repressed peaceful democracy activists in Beijing, resulted in the George H. W. Bush administration’s suspending military contracts and defence technology transfers, as well as indefinitely freezing all visits between US and Chinese military leaders. It wasn’t until Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Chas W. Freeman, Jr. visited China in October 1993 that bilateral military-to-military contacts resumed.  

A decade later, members of Congress demonstrated alarm over alleged Chinese espionage in the United States by imposing severe restrictions on PLA-Pentagon contacts. Section 1202 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 explicitly directed the defence secretary not to authorize military contacts with China that could lead to inappropriate PLA access to an itemized list of advanced US military capabilities. 

External factors unrelated to the military exchanges also contributed to the congressional decision. Members complained about China’s human rights practices (ranging from suppression of civil liberties to allegations of forced abortions and slave labour), Beijing’s sale of ballistic missiles and nuclear technologies to states of proliferation concern, and its policies towards Tibet and Taiwan.

Mullen writes that improving Pentagon-PLA military ties requires developing ‘strategic trust’ between the two militaries through talking – ‘a good bit of misunderstanding between our militaries can be cleared up by reaching out to each other’ and byfocus(ing) on the things we have in common.’ He sees these mutual interests as protecting maritime commerce from piracy and other constraints, impeding the proliferation of drugs and weapons of mass destruction, and promoting regional stability in the Koreas and Pakistan.

To help this along, Mullen invited Gen. Chen Bingde, the head of the PLA, to visit the United States in May. Mullen went on a reciprocal visit to China in mid-July, and argues that such contacts have been an important tool for overcoming mistrust.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief