A delegation of the People's Liberation Army, the largest group of Chinese military officers ever to visit the United States, recently toured the Pentagon and other U.S. defense facilities. Part of their mission was to further erode and finally end the congressional ban on weapons and technology sales to China imposed after the Tiananmen Square massacre of peaceful demonstrators on June 4, 1989.
(China's brutal crackdown remains the model for despots in Burma, Africa, Iran, Libya, Syria, and elsewhere.)
Within weeks of Tiananmen, President George H. W. Bush, who had been the first U.S. representative to Communist China after President Nixon opened relations in 1972, sent his deputy secretary of state and national security adviser to Beijing where they exchanged toasts with the man who ordered the brutal crackdown, Premier Deng Xiaoping.
But Congress reacted quite differently to the Tiananmen outrage, enacting a law in 1980 to limit Sino-U.S. military exchanges that could "create a national security risk due to an inappropriate exposure" of U.S. operational capabilities.
Ever since, U.S. presidents, defense secretaries, and Pacific naval commanders have chafed at the congressional restrictions, which they view as inhibiting the presumed benefits of robust military relations: conflict prevention and crisis management, particularly over Taiwan; transparency and reciprocity; cooperation on North Korea, counter-terrorism, and nonproliferation.
Executive branch officials and other China specialists visualize military interaction as encouraging pro-American attitudes and greater professionalization within the PLA. They also posit that there is an inherent deterrent—Chinese officials seeing firsthand the technological prowess of the U.S. military are unlikely to favor aggressive behavior.
The head of the PLA delegation, General Chen Bingde, chief of the general staff, encouraged that benign narrative in his remarks at the National Defense University: "To be honest, I feel very sad after visiting, because I think, I feel, and I know, how poor our equipments are and how underdeveloped we remain."
But U.S. officials are less likely to take such humility at face value after China's assertive actions in the South and East China Seas and Beijing's continued threats to Taiwan despite its election of a pro-China president.
They also recall how Beijing embarrassed Secretary Gates during his visit last year by suddenly announcing the successful test of a Chinese stealth fighter—years before the secretary, a former CIA director, had predicted it would fly.
General Chen's NDU speech seemed to walk the dog back to the less-threatening, soft power campaign of China's "peaceful rise" and to return to Premier Deng's strategy of deception: "Hide our capacities and bide our time."
Still, official U.S. faith in the power of personal and professional interaction to moderate Chinese policies runs deep. In 1998, Admiral Joseph Prueher, commander of the Pacific Fleet, described his extensive cultivation of Chinese military counterparts. "If the balloon ever went up," he would know whom to call to prevent a crisis from escalating.
Three years later, he was the U.S. ambassador to China when one of its fighter jets collided with a U.S.EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft in international airspace, causing it to crash-land on Hainan Island. His calls to PLA interlocutors went unanswered as the crisis festered.
Undaunted, his successor at Pacific Command, Admiral William Fallon, similarly pursued personal contacts in the Chinese military so that in a future emergency "I can pick up the telephone and call someone I already know."
The 1990 law limiting U.S.-China military contacts exempts humanitarian operations and exercises, and China has recognized the value in pursuing those activities as a way of getting around the broader restrictions.
For years, Beijing has failed in its efforts to buy U.S. long-range transport aircraft to fill a gap in its air capabilities. Last year, China asked to purchase C-130s for its disaster relief operations—and Washington acceded to the request even though such a capability will be highly useful to China in a military operation, including one against Taiwan.
Except for a few tangential areas where China's own commercial interests are directly affected, such as anti-piracy activities in the Gulf of Aden, U.S. hopes that China would be at least a "responsible international stakeholder" if not a "strategic partner" have not been realized.
On North Korea's nuclear program, counter-terrorism, and non-proliferation, China's role has not been helpful and is often adversarial to U.S. and Western interests. It has refused to join over a hundred other countries that participate in the U.S.-led Proliferation Security Initiative.
American officials continue to ignore or dilute the congressional constraints on military cooperation with China while Beijing persists in exploiting U.S. engagement anxiety by pressuring Washington to stop selling arms to Taiwan and resume selling them to China.
The Obama administration should do a better job than its predecessors did, and that it has done so far, in honoring U.S. law governing military relations with both sides of the Taiwan Strait.
Joseph A. Bosco served in the office of the secretary of defense as China country desk officer from 2005 to 2006 and previously taught graduate seminars on China-U.S. relations at Georgetown University’s Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. He is now a national security consultant.