SCHRIVER: Bound to fail

U.S. military ties with China work only to PLA’s advantage

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If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results, then surely it’s time for a serious examination of the costs and benefits of U.S. government efforts to build a more robust military relationship with China. Since establishing military ties almost 30 years ago, successive U.S. administrations have utterly failed in the many attempts to fashion a U.S.-China bilateral military relationship that advances Washington’s goals.

Quite to the contrary, in fact, U.S.-China military ties have served primarily to strengthen the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) inadvertently as it seeks to become a more professional and more capable force. To arrest this trend, serious restructuring of bilateral military ties is required.

As a previous senior director for policy toward the People's Republic of China (PRC) at the Pentagon, I once had responsibilities for managing U.S.-China military relations on behalf of two secretaries of defense. Through work at the Pentagon and subsequent work both in and out of government, I have watched closely as the military relationship with China has developed. To say the results from our efforts have been disappointing would be a gross understatement.

The United States is correct to want greater transparency from the PLA; to enhance the safety of operations in the Pacific; to demonstrate intentions and capabilities for deterrent effect against potential PRC provocations; to reduce the chance of miscalculation through candid dialogue; to seek cooperative approaches to challenges in the global commons; and to influence a younger generation of PLA officers. Yet we now have ample evidence gleaned from 30 years of data that we are further from, not closer to, these goals. Moreover, three decades of attempted engagement have conditioned Beijing to advance its own objectives by leveraging the continuing pursuits of the ardent suitor found in Washington.

Here lies the fundamental reason for our lackluster record: The PLA’s leaders have their own objectives when it comes to military relations with Washington. They seek to influence Washington’s decision-making on China’s so-called core interests, to obtain professional know-how from the world’s most capable military, to gain their own insights on U.S. military vulnerabilities, and to make advances in the area of technology transfer, particularly where dual-use technologies are concerned.

We should pause now and look objectively at the scorecard. And if we do so, we must acknowledge how much better China has performed in attaining many of its objectives in the military relationship as compared to our own record.

Out of deference to China, and despite the rapid PLA buildup, the Obama administration to date has the worst record on Taiwan arms sales since the passage of the Taiwan Relations Act in 1979. Despite Chinese provocations in the South China Sea, Obama administration officials are openly discussing scaling back our military reconnaissance flights in the Pacific as a potential mechanism to build confidence with Beijing. And despite expressions of confidence from Washington that our displays of power in the Pacific will deter China, instead we see an aggressive PLA acquisition plan designed to complicate U.S. operations through programs such as offensive cyber-operations, anti-satellite missiles and anti-ship ballistic missiles.

I have seen the worst consequences of our competing objectives first-hand while in government. At the time of the EP-3 incident in 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell attempted to invoke the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA), which contained explicit provisions addressing action the two sides should take in the event of an accident. Rather than accept our offers to conduct search and rescue for the missing Chinese pilot, to form a joint task force to investigate the causes of the accident, and to use MMCA mechanisms to establish new rules of the road to avoid future such accidents, the Chinese canceled MMCA talks and demanded the U.S. end reconnaissance flights in the Pacific. To me, Adm. Mike Mullen’s recent visit to Beijing, where he was subjected to a condescending lecture from the PLA’s senior-most general, was “deja vu all over again.”

Today, the source of tensions and obstacles to productive military exchanges are growing in scope - yet they continue to be addressed by the Obama administration through the same modest initiatives to “raise confidence.” Furthermore, the PRC increasingly views defense relations as expendable, devoid of substance and largely symbolic. As a result, it invests in this relationship only insofar as they believe it will affect U.S. foreign policy. This highlights a need for a strategic re-evaluation on our part.

The U.S.-China military-to-military relationship has proven to be of very limited value to the United States. But true to form, it is the Chinese military that places “conditions” on the future enhancement of military ties. Chinese military authorities have explicitly stated that military relations cannot progress until the United States alters its arms sales policy toward Taiwan, ends reconnaissance flights in the Pacific, and amends U.S. legislation that inhibits certain types of military interactions between the United States and China. As Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Shultz observed 30 years ago, “When the geostrategic importance of China became the conceptual prism through which Sino-American relations were viewed, it was almost inevitable that American policymakers would become overly solicitous of Chinese interests, concerns and sensitivities.” One must hope the Obama administration heeds these warnings.

Ironically, when Beijing’s leaders want to demonstrate pique over U.S. support for Taiwan, China pulls back from military-to-military exchanges. In such cases in the future, the United States should welcome China’s decision. As China aggressively pursues military modernization and seeks a more professional force, choosing to limit interaction with the world’s greatest military will actually hurt China more than the United States.

The United States should suspend or, at a minimum, dramatically scale back military relations with China until such a time the PLA is prepared to engage in a mutually beneficial relationship. We should have our own conditions for improving bilateral military ties (e.g., ask the PRC to renounce the use of force against Taiwan and embrace the principles of freedom of navigation in the South China Sea). We should redouble efforts to strengthen our military alliances in the Asia-Pacific region and our security partnership with Taiwan. If the Obama administration fails to take such steps, then Congress should seriously consider freezing funds for this counterproductive approach to U.S.-China military relations.

Randy Schriver, president of Project 2049, is a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia.

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