Sino-US Military Relations since Tiananmen: Restoration, Progress, and Pitfalls

By Yuan, Jing-Dong | Parameters, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Sino-US Military Relations since Tiananmen: Restoration, Progress, and Pitfalls


Yuan, Jing-Dong, Parameters


Sino-US relations have experienced uneven developments over the last decade as the two major powers have grappled with the evolving post-Cold War international security environment as well as shifting domestic agendas and foreign policy priorities. The bilateral military-to-military relationship likewise has gone through a period of resumption and exploration, important achievements and major setbacks, and continued efforts at improving mutual trust and understanding. Among the key features of this relationship are high-level exchange visits of defense ministers and military leaders; confidence-building measures, including the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, annual Defense Consultation Talks, and port visits; and regular contacts at the functional level between the two countries' national defense universities and military academies. Through these contacts, the two militaries have begun to engage each other in exchanging views on threat perceptions, perspectives on global arms control and regional se curity, defense conversion, military doctrines, and broader politico-security issues.

This article offers a preliminary assessment of the nature, evolution, and pitfalls of the Sino-US military relationship since the Tiananmen incident in 1989. It begins with a brief overview of the major developments over the last decade, identifying both progress and setbacks. The next section discusses US and Chinese interests in developing and maintaining military ties both from the broader strategic objectives sought by policymakers in Beijing and Washington and the institutional perspectives of the two militaries. It is clear that the two sides have different agendas and have adopted different approaches. This at once explains the tensions in pursuing the bilateral military relationship and calls for pragmatic initiatives conducive to future developments. This is followed by an examination of the factors that have influenced, and may well continue to affect, bilateral military relations. The article concludes by summarizing the major findings of the research and offering some tentative recommendations f or developing stable, pragmatic, and meaningful bilateral military relations between China and the United States.

Sino-US Military Relations Since 1989: An Overview

The Tiananmen incident of June 1989 remains a pivotal event in the chronicle of Sino-US relations. It fundamentally changed the way in which bilateral relations had been managed since President Richard Nixon's 1972 visit to China. With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the fundamental basis of bilateral cooperation during the Cold War years evaporated. Among the first casualties of Tiananmen was the Sino-US bilateral military relationship. The Bush Administration of that era immediately suspended all high-level military contacts and froze the ongoing foreign military sales (FMS) programs for China. (1) Although the US National Defense University (NDU) "Capstone" delegations resumed visits to China in 1991, and there were informal contacts between the two militaries during Operation Desert Storm, including the PRC Defense Attache's visiting the Pentagon and receiving briefings on US operations in the Gulf, it was not until October 1993 when Chas W. Freeman , Jr., Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs, visited China that bilateral military-to-military contacts resumed.

This important visit followed the Clinton Administration's decision to shift from a confrontational China policy to one of engagement. In the aftermath of the Yinhe fiasco (2) and faced with the looming crisis over the North Korean nuclear weapons program in the summer of 1993, the Pentagon, in particular two senior officials--Deputy Secretary of Defense William Perry and Freeman- pushed for a more conciliatory China policy, including resuming contacts and opening up dialogues with the Chinese military. …

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