Expanding Contacts to Enhance Durability: A Strategy for Improving U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relations

Expanding Contacts to Enhance Durability
A Strategy for Improving U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relations

by Scott W. Harold
July 15, 2013

This article examines U.S.-China military-to-military relations and outlines a strategy for improving ties by expanding contacts across a range of functional areas.



U.S. and Chinese observers recognize that the military-to-military relationship between the two countries is the weakest component of their bilateral relationship. Strategic mistrust between Washington and Beijing is high and centers primarily on defense issues. Few analyses have systematically examined policy options for improving ties between the two militaries. Looking at a wide array of opportunities for increasing contact and cooperation, this study identifies a strategy for improving military relations. It lays out a standard by which to judge what sorts of contacts are acceptable and explores the risks and benefits of various policy options.

  • The U.S. is determined to improve its military ties with China. If Washington wants to stabilize defense relations with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), a strategy that is both top-down and bottom-up, premised on more regular contact between military elites combined with expanded contacts at lower levels, appears to hold the greatest promise. This approach would raise the benefits for Beijing of engagement while increasing the costs to China of cutting ties.
  • Available evidence suggests that the best approach to engagement with the PLA would be to adopt a centrally managed strategy that captures insights from across all of the U.S. military’s unified combatant commands. Engagement should avoid offering any assistance to PLA operational warfighting, power-projection, or domestic repression capabilities. Many opportunities for engagement exist that will meet these criteria, and such cooperation with China serves the U.S. national interest.
  • U.S. officials should harbor realistic expectations about what military-to-military cooperation can accomplish. Improvements in ties will likely be incremental, take a long time, and not follow a linear trajectory. They could, however, eventually contribute to a better overall relationship.
Expanding Contacts to Enhance Durability: A Strategy for Improving U.S.-China Military-to-Military Relations

Scott W. Harold is an Associate Political Scientist with the RAND Corporation, a U.S.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan public-policy think tank. Dr. Harold specializes in the analysis of Chinese foreign and security policies and the international relations of East Asia.

While the political and economic aspects of the relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) are substantial and well-institutionalized, the military-to-military ties between the two countries are recognized by observers on both sides of the Pacific as underdeveloped and deeply troubled. Military contacts have been severed repeatedly over the past twenty-plus years. Washington cut ties in the wake of China’s 1989 crackdown on democracy protestors and after the 2001 EP-3 crisis, and Beijing suspended contacts following the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 and after U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in 2007 and 2010. The Obama administration, worried that poor military relations could aggravate strategic mistrust or cause miscalculations that lead to heightened conflict, has made improving engagement with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a part of its overall strategy of “rebalancing” toward the Asia-Pacific. Chinese leaders have also demonstrated openness to expanded contact with the U.S. military.

Should the United States seek to build closer military relations with the Chinese armed forces? If so, what policy options are available to develop more stable ties? And what strategy is most likely to achieve U.S. goals? This article examines the arguments for and against closer U.S.-China military-to-military relations. It concludes by advocating a strategy that expands the points of contact between the two sides and gives more actors in China a vested interest in maintaining rather than cutting ties. The article reaches this conclusion by describing current U.S. strategy and prospective areas of engagement and analyzing the benefits and risks associated with each policy option. It draws on U.S. and Chinese writings on defense diplomacy, as well as on more than two dozen interviews with leading Chinese and U.S. international security experts, including active and retired military officers, think-tank analysts, and academics specializing in international relations and security affairs.

The article is organized as follows:

  • The first section (pp. 106-7) provides an overview of the U.S.-China military-to-military relationship.
  • The second section (pp. 108-12) examines whether expanding ties with the Chinese armed forces is in the U.S. national interest.
  • The third section (pp. 112-31) describes policy options for deepening U.S. contacts with the PLA, providing insights from U.S. and Chinese expert analysis.
  • The fourth section (pp. 131-37) offers a set of caveats that qualify the article’s recommendations.


For years, U.S. political-military leaders and policy analysts have worried that the absence of stable contacts with the Chinese armed forces could lead to or exacerbate misperceptions, misunderstandings, and miscalculations, especially as forces from the two sides operate in increasing proximity as a result of China’s development of greater power-projection capabilities. In response, Washington has pushed Beijing to commit to building more stability in the military relationship between the two countries. Former secretary of defense Leon Panetta spoke frequently about the importance of U.S.-China military cooperation, including at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in June 2012 and in Beijing in September 2012. [1] Similarly, before stepping down as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen argued in a New York Times op-ed that strategic trust would only come about through “more frequent discussions, more exercises, [and] more personnel exchanges.” [2] Such views reflect a belief among many in the Department of Defense that while engagement cannot resolve all the disagreements between the United States and China, it can help crystallize and clarify misunderstandings on each side so as to avoid unnecessary disagreements and enable the two countries to refocus their attention on those areas where disagreement actually does exist.

Consistent messaging from the Obama administration appears to have been somewhat successful in moving the issue of improving military-to-military relations up China’s list of policy priorities, an approach that has worked in other issue areas as well. [3] Over the past two years, top Chinese military leaders have committed to improved military ties. For example, the visit of former PLA chief of the General Staff Department, General Chen Bingde, to the United States in May 2011 was described as being designed to “increase mutual trust.” [4] During a visit to the Pentagon in February 2012, Xi Jinping, then vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, agreed to broaden and deepen ties between the PLA and the…

[1] Marcus Weisgerber, “Panetta: ‘Mature’ Relations with China Needed,” Navy Times, June 2, 2012; and Craig Whitlock, “As Panetta Visits China, Smiles and Challenges,” Washington Post, September 19, 2012.

[2] Mike Mullen, “A Step Toward Trust with China,” New York Times, July 25, 2011.

[3] Evan S. Medeiros, Reluctant Restraint: The Evolution of China’s Nonproliferation Policies and Practices, 1980-2004 (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007).

[4] Zai Fei, “Chen Bingde to Visit the U.S., Attend Military Exercises,” Jiefang Ribao, trans. Scott W. Harold, May 15, 2011.

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