Why Caution Is Needed in Military Contacts with China

Report Asia

Why Caution Is Needed in Military Contacts with China

December 2, 1999 16 min read
Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel
Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel no longer works for the Heritage Foundation.

Even before an agreement on trade relations between Beijing and Washington was finalized, Secretary of Defense William Cohen announced that the United States will resume military-to-military contacts with China.1 It would be easy for Americans to assume that normalizing trade relations with China also means normalizing military relations, but this is far from the case. Under this Administration, military-to-military contacts--or "engagement activities"--allowed Chinese military officers broad access to U.S. warships, exercises, and even military manuals.2 Once it became clear that China obtained U.S. nuclear weapons technology through espionage, Congress felt compelled to caution the Administration to limit such contacts by adding a restriction to the Fiscal Year (FY) 2000 National Defense Authorization Act.3It prohibited the Secretary of Defense from authorizing military exchanges that "create a national security risk" by exposing representatives of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) to broadly defined categories of U.S. advanced war fighting doctrine and experimentation.4 Congress sought to ensure that military contacts with the PLA would not improve China's ability to wage war, project force, threaten Taiwan, or repress its people.

Unfortunately, it is not clear whether the Pentagon understands the seriousness with which Congress considers the risk. During the week of November 15, 1999, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Kurt Campbell traveled to Beijing to meet with PLA leaders about future military contacts.5 It is likely that Lieutenant General Xiong Guangkai, a deputy chief in the PLA office that handles intelligence and international matters, will be the point of contact for these U.S.-China military exchanges.6 Although Xiong has managed military contacts between Washington and Beijing for a number of years, these meetings should be approached with extreme caution.

In 1996, Xiong surprised the defense community when he asserted that "Americans care more about Los Angeles than they do about Taiwan"--a thinly veiled threat to remind former U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Chas Freeman that China's intercontinental missile force could target the United States for siding with Taiwan in cross-Strait confrontations.7 Xiong also supervised Major General Ji Shengde, the head of the PLA's Military Intelligence Department, when Ji arranged illegal donations to the Democratic National Committee in 1996.8 Roughly the equivalent of the director of the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency, Xiong has some responsibilities that are similar to those of the director of policy and strategy on the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff.

These facts make military contacts between an appointed civilian official of the Clinton Administration and a high-ranking Chinese military and intelligence officer who supervised operations designed to undermine the democratic process in the United States troubling, at best.


In trade relations, Americans should welcome the recent agreement with Beijing allowing China admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO). For China, accession to the WTO will open its economy to foreign trade, increase private ownership, and foster reforms and the growth of a middle class. But in the defense and security arena, Beijing's actions do not support a "business as usual" approach. These actions include:

  • The deployment of hundreds of new missiles near the Taiwan Strait--the same missiles China shot off the coast of Taiwan in 1995 and 1996.

  • The acquisition of new aircraft, submarines, cruisers, and missiles from Russia; radar equipment from Israel; air refueling technology from Britain; and missiles from Italy and France, which will improve the PLA's ability to wage war beyond Taiwan and into the South China Sea.9

  • The PLA Air Force's revision of its strategic orientation from basically a defensive doctrine to an offensive one.10

  • Authoritative articles in the PLA's official newspaper that call for the establishment of a new service to carry out electronic and information attacks against enemy forces and on an enemy's homeland.11 (The PLA appears to have chosen the U.S. military as the model against which it will train its forces to fight.12)

The Pentagon can no longer ignore the fact that the "Strategic Partnership" heralded by President Clinton is, for China, strategic competition.13 Any military-to-military contacts must be structured with this development in mind.

In 1996, China's military leaders were embarrassed by their inability to respond to the presence of U.S. aircraft carrier battlegroups off Taiwan, which were responding to China's military exercises in the Strait during Taiwan's presidential elections. In the years since then, the PLA has worked harder to find ways to deter U.S. military involvement in the area, such as improving its capabilities in information or electronic warfare; extending the operational range and capabilities of its Air Force with airborne early warning and control systems (AWACS aircraft), new missiles, and air-to-air refueling systems; and making new missile threats against Taiwan.14

The PLA wants to develop a military that can react quickly in the region with new precision weapons and modern combat platforms. PLA leaders want secure, world-class communication, computer, and intelligence systems. They want the logistics capability to project forces and sustain those forces. And they are going after them by purchasing new systems from abroad, gathering intelligence on how to use them, and developing them indigenously.15 The fact is, many of the military contacts between the United States and China over the years helped the PLA attain its goals.16


Reopening normal military exchanges with China as though it was just another Pacific region security partner is the wrong approach. A new dialogue with China needs to focus first on strategic issues like China's proliferation behavior, its threat of force against Taiwan, its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, and the security of the Korean Peninsula. Instead of seeking exchanges on military exercises and efficiency with its Chinese counterparts, the Clinton Administration should be talking with the PLA about:

  • China's proliferation of ballistic missile technology.
    China's missile and nuclear cooperation with Pakistan, which the Clinton Administration ignored for years, led to the nuclearization of South Asia. China exported the first intermediate-range ballistic missiles to the Middle East, and Beijing continues to engage in proliferation with Iran. The Administration should directly address these issues with Beijing when it takes PLA admirals and generals around to observe U.S. military exercises.17

  • U.S. responsibilities under the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).
    Elected congressional representatives of the American populace passed the TRA to ensure America's friends in the Republic of China on Taiwan can defend themselves against aggression. U.S. military officers are required by law to ensure Taiwan's military defenses are more effective than Beijing's offensive capability.

  • Security of the Korean peninsula.
    The United States and China have common concerns on the Korean Peninsula. Neither country wants war to break out again; both countries seek to end the conflict that has been festering since 1950 and to convince North Korea to modernize; and both countries have established good trading relations with the Republic of Korea. Common ground can be found on North Korea as well as other security issues.

  • China's threats of force against Taiwan.
    Beijing should know that it is acting like a 15th century suzerain by threatening to "punish" Taiwan, which is conducting democratic elections, or any other country that does not do its bidding, with military action. Threats against Taiwan are destabilizing.

  • Freedom of navigation of airways and oceans.
    The PLA should understand that its aggressive and irresponsible actions in the South China Sea around the Spratly Islands, on Mischief Reef off the Philippines, and in the Taiwan Strait impede access to seaways and airways for trade and commerce.18 The Clinton Administration should make it clear that the security and stability of the western Pacific is a vital interest of the United States.

  • Competing strategic visions and priorities.
    The National Security Strategy of the United States and the 1998 White Paper on China's National Defense present competing visions on how alliances should function or whether there should be an alliance structure in the Pacific region. The Clinton Administration should work to ensure the PLA understands the importance and strength of the U.S. security commitments to Japan, Korea, Australia, the Philippines, Thailand, and Taiwan.19

  • U.S. missile defense systems.
    China has conducted an unprecedented military buildup of ballistic missiles, particularly along its eastern coast. As a consequence of the buildup and Beijing's missile threats in 1996, the entire security equation in the Pacific has changed. The United States needs theater missile defenses in Asia, and should extend such protection to its allies and friends. Also, the United States needs a national missile defense. Beijing should be confronted with how its own irresponsible behavior has changed the security balance in the region.20

  • The role of the respective militaries in the United Nations.
    In the past, the U.S. military and China's PLA worked together in Cambodia and in Kuwait on U.N. peacekeeping operations. The Administration should seek ways to continue such cooperation, which promotes China's position as a responsible member of the world community and educates China's leaders and soldiers on the difficulties of promoting peace in the world.

  • The role of the Chinese military in a civil society.
    The PLA is a "party army." Its primary allegiance is not to the People's Republic of China but to the Communist Party. Exchanges between the PLA and U.S. educators at military academies should demonstrate how a military force functions as an organ of the state and government in a democratic republic. Matters relating to the rule of law and individual freedoms should be discussed, much as they are at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii and at the Marshall Center in Germany.

  • Domestic solutions to environmental problems on military bases.
    American industry can demonstrate positive activities to the Chinese armed forces. The Administration should highlight the accomplishments of U.S. entrepreneurs in turning military property into productive civilian uses in the wake of the Cold War. For example, PLA generals should tour the new college campus on the former site of Fort Ord in California, and the new townhouse subdivision at the former Cameron Station in Alexandria, Virginia. Beijing should see how the free enterprise system can be harnessed to clean up polluted military land.

U.S. armed forces need to conduct a security dialogue with China. But the Defense Department must make clear during these discussions that the United States will continue to support the efforts of Taiwan's armed forces to maintain its defenses; view China's missile activities and nuclear proliferation as grave threats to its security; and seek a theater missile defense system to protect its forces in East Asia and offer that system to its friends and allies.

The Pentagon should establish clear standards for future U.S.-China military contacts. There should be no further "joint exercises," and no suggestions that U.S. military units or special operations forces will conduct military exchanges with the PLA. The release of U.S. war-gaming or combat simulation computer software to the PLA should cease. Such systems that were provided in the 1980s are in use today, training regimental and division leaders to fight more effectively against Taiwan. Finally, U.S. defense officials should refuse to talk to the senior Chinese military intelligence officer who ridiculed America's intent to ensure Taiwan's self-defense and who supervised illegal contributions to a U.S. presidential campaign. The Department of Defense should talk only with those leaders in Beijing who will make the decisions governing when China uses force or goes to war.


The United States should gauge its military contacts with China carefully. It should adopt a simple standard to govern future military cooperation: It should do nothing to improve the PLA's capability to wage war against Taiwan or U.S. friends and allies, its ability to project force, or its ability to repress the Chinese people. Relations with China must be kept in the proper perspective. Normal trade relations do not mean normal military relations.

Dr. Larry M. Wortzel is Director of the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation

1. Bill Gertz, "Better Military Ties with China a Goal," The Washington Times, September 28, 1999, p. 3.

2. Richard Parker, "Peace Bid: U.S. Shows China Its Warships," The Philadelphia Enquirer, July 17, 1998, p. 5. Military-to-military contacts include activities ranging from joint exercises designed to improve the capabilities of different armed forces to fight as a team to exchanges of war-fighting doctrine, manuals, and tactics. At the most benign levels of exchange, U.S. forces disclose their activities to others as forms of confidence-building measures; with allies and friends, the U.S. military often seeks to improve foreign military capabilities through training and combined maneuvers.

3. Representative Tom DeLay, "DeLay Amendment to H.R. 1401," July 9, 1999, amending Section 1203, Report of the Committee on Armed Services of the U.S. House of Representatives on H.R. 1401, Report 106-102, May 24, 1999.

4. S. 1059, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000. See TITLE XII, Subtitle A, Section 1201.

5. Elizabeth Becker, "China Set to End Suspension of Military Relationship," The New York Times, November 5, 1999, p. A16; "Conditions Set Out for Resumption of Military Exchanges with USA," Wen Wei Po, Hong Kong, November 19, 1999, p. A5.

6. Bill Gertz, "U.S. Military Officials Ready for China Visit; First Talks Since Bombing of Embassy," The Washington Times, November 16, 1999, p. A5.

7. Terry Atlas, "China's Military Big, Maybe not so Mighty," The Chicago Tribune, March 12, 1996, p. 1; Maria LaGanga, "Dole Blasts Administration over Missile Defense Needs," The Los Angeles Times, June 19, 1996, p. A-1; Patrick E. Tyler, "As China Threatens Taiwan, It Makes Sure U.S. Listens," The Los Angeles Times, September 9, 1996, p. A-1.

8. Xiong Guangkai's position also gives him oversight responsibility for China's military spying in the United States. See Select Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, U.S. National Security and Military/Commercial Concerns with the People's Republic of China (the "Cox Report") (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1999). On Ji Shengde and campaign contributions, see James Risen, "Nuclear Secrets: Links: Fund Raising Figure Had Spy Case Role," The New York Times, May 26, 1999, p. A20; and Lillian M. Rempert, Henry Weinstein, and Alan C. Miller, "Testimony Links Top China Official, Funds for Clinton," The Los Angeles Times, April 4, 1999, p. A1.

9. Brian Mitchell, "Should America Trust its Allies?" Investor's Business Daily, November 24, 1999, p. 1; Duncan L. Clarke and Robert J. Johnston, "U.S. Dual-Use Exports to China, Chinese Behavior and the Israel Factor," Asian Survey, Vol. 39, No. 2, March/April 1999, pp. 193-213.

10. John Pomfret, "China Plans for a Stronger Air Force; Move Reflects Push to Expand Influence in Asia, Serve Notice to the United States," The Washington Post, November 8, 1999, p. A17; Li Jijun, Junshi Zhanlue Siwei [Strategic thought] (Beijing: Military Science Press, 1996), pp. 107-113.

11. Jiefangjun Bao, November 11, 1999, p. 7. See also Zhu Youwen, Gao Jishu Tiaojian xia de Xinxi Zhan [Information Warfare Under High Technology Conditions] (Beijing: Military Science Press, 1998). See also Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui, Chao Xian Zhan [War Without Limits or No-Limit Warfare] (Beijing: PLA Arts and Literature Press, 1999), pp. 10-33.

12. On strategic competition, see Larry M. Wortzel, "U.S.-Chinese Military Relations in the 21st Century," in Larry M. Wortzel, ed., The Chinese Armed Forces in the 21st Century (Carlisle, Pa.: AEI and SSI, forthcoming, December 1999), pp. 217-252.

13. On the "strategic partnership," see Ni Feng, "Recent Developments in Sino-US Relations, Beijing Review, June 29-July 5, 1996, pp. 7-9; Li Jinhui, "China and US: Seek a Real Strategic Partnership," Beijing Review, June 29-July 5, 1998,
pp. 11-12.

14. Mark A. Stokes, China's Strategic Modernization: Implications for the United States (Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, 1999); Larry M. Wortzel, "China's Military Potential in the 21st Century," The Asia-Pacific Magazine, No. 12, September 1998, pp. 17-22.

15. Larry M. Wortzel, China's Military Potential (Carlisle, Pa.: Strategic Studies Institute, 1998), pp. 11-20.

16. In the author's own experience as a military attaché in China and at the U.S. Army War College, he has seen Chinese Air Force personnel at U.S. Air Traffic Control sites receive explanations from American officers on how to coordinate civilian air traffic and such activities as low-level bombing and air refueling. In visits to the U.S. Army's Joint Readiness Training Center, China's armed forces have been shown how to coordinate air operations. A battlefield command simulation system for computers given to the PLA by a U.S. Army general in 1988, over the objections of U.S. diplomats in Beijing, is now used to teach future division commanders and staff how to coordinate combat operations at a PLA command college.

17. James T. Hackett, "Perils of a Proliferation Presidency," The Washington Times, July 27, 1998, p. A16; Duncan Lennox, "Solid-Propellant Ballistic Missiles on Parade in Beijing," Jane's Defense Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 15, October 13, 1999, pp. 4-5; Yihong Zhang, "China Deploys Dong Feng-31 Missile Toward its Southern Borders," Jane's Defense Weekly, Vol. 32, No. 18, November 3, 1999, pp. 2-3; National Intelligence Council, Foreign Missile Developments and the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States Through 2015 (Washington, D.C.: Central Intelligence Agency, September 1999), pp. 8-11.

18. China refused to support a call by Southeast Asian nations for a code of conduct in the South China Sea to ease tensions over the Spratly Islands. See Paul Alexander, "As Crisis Ebbs, Southeast Asia Shifts Focus, Political Issues Dominate Talks," The Boston Globe, November 26, 1999, p. A41. On China's aggressive actions in the Spratly Islands see Nayan Chanda, "Territorial Imperative," Far Eastern Economic Review, February 23, 1999, pp. 14-16.

19. The first five of these are treaties and agreements for mutual security or defense. In Taiwan's case, U.S. security commitments are set forth in the Taiwan Relations Act.

20. Peter Brookes, "Facing an Assertive China," Defense News, November 1, 1999, p. 19; Office of Naval Intelligence, Chinese Exercise Strait 961: 8-25 March 1996. Washington, DC: Office of Naval Intelligence, May 1996; Larry M. Wortzel, "Ballistic Missiles and Weapons of Mass Destruction: The View from Beijing," in Jim Colbert, ed., Proceedings from the Conference on Countering the Missile Threat: International Military Strategies. Washington, D.C.: Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, 1999, pp. 27-29, 190-203.


Larry Wortzel
Larry Wortzel

Adjunct Research Professor at the U.S. Army War College