May 2, 2001 | WebMemo on Asia
The suspension of military contacts with the People's Republic of China by Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld is a prudent action given the way that China treated the crew of the U.S. EP-3 aircraft, and China's lack of response on a means to return the aircraft to the United States.
Secretary Rumsfeld's action is also consistent with United States law. The Fiscal Year 2000 Defense Authorization Act limited the Secretary of Defense from authorizing any exchanges or contact by the U.S. armed forces with the Chinese army if that exchange or contact would create a national security risk.
The Clinton Administration continued many forms of contacts with China that, on face value, were prohibited by the law. In addition, the Clinton administration put in a report in response to that law documenting all contacts between the U.S. armed forces and the People's Liberation Army (PLA) of China that was so voluminous that a suspension of those activities and their review by Secretary Rumsfeld was absolutely necessary.
Routine contacts on military matters, particularly those related to the return of the EP-3 aircraft can still be carried out by the military attaches each side stations at its embassy.
A background paper by The Heritage Foundation dated April 18, 2001, recommended that "the Secretary of Defense should deny requests from U.S. military leaders for joint exercises with the Chinese armed forces that show PLA officers how to fight more effectively."
Secretary Rumsfeld was wise to suspend contacts and to review them. This will effect ship visits and port calls to China and Chinese port calls to the United States. It is not clear yet whether the Chinese or the U.S. will apply this to port calls in Hong Kong.
I expect Secretary Rumsfeld to conduct a thorough review of all previous contacts and to decide what, if any, types of contact are appropriate in the future. The types of contact that I would recommend are those to prevent accidents such as the collision between the Chinese F-8 and the U.S. EP-3. Some form of mutual security and confidence building measures at the highest strategic levels may be conducted after this review and would be appropriate, but I do not expect that the policies of previous administrations that encouraged routine military exchanges will continue after Rumsfeld's review.