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What's with the Relationship between America's Army and China's PLA?

Authored by Colonel Jer Donald Get. | September 1996

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In the late spring of 1995, Secretary of Defense William J. Perry asked the Secretary of the Army to look into the restoration of functional exchanges between the American Army and China's People's Liberation Army (PLA). This request was a major step toward the re-establishment of U.S. Army-PLA ties suspended by U.S. President George Bush in response to the 1989 Tiananmen incident. Reviving functional exchanges by Chinese and American military personnel is particularly significant because these exchanges had been one of the "three pillars" of Sino-American military cooperation during the 1980s. Furthermore, even though the U.S. Army has a long- standing tradition of maintaining military-to-military contacts with foreign armies, these contacts and other forms of "peacetime engagement" have grown in significance in the post-Cold War era.1 This is due to a number of factors including the recent reduction of the U.S. Army's force structure, personnel, and overseas presence, as well as the nation's increasing reliance on coalition partners for deterring or prosecuting the potential conflicts of the future.

There are, however, some who question the value of renewing American military ties with the Chinese based on the rather limited U.S. gains from the earlier relationship. Furthermore, significant changes in the political environment make the U.S. Army's re-engagement with the PLA somewhat problematic. The original "China Card" rationale for military ties, that of using China as a strategic counterweight against the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), became inoperative with the USSR's demise. Thus, criticism regarding military cooperation with what many Americans view as a repressive Chinese regime, once muted for the greater good of Soviet containment, has found both a stronger voice and more receptive listeners. Additionally, reductions in manpower, money, and materiel, when taken together with growing worldwide demands for the attention and/or intervention of the U.S. military, make the cost effectiveness of investing in a relationship with a country that still harbors significant distrust of U.S. strategic intentions rather questionable.

Before re-establishing functional military ties with the PLA, the U.S. Army owes itself a detailed look at the relationship. This study, undertaken to support that process, examines the terms of the American Army's engagement with the PLA.

The examination begins by exploring the history of the broader U.S.-PRC security relationship from which army-to-army ties were derived. The brief historical expedition reveals the security foundations of the original breakthrough in friendly bilateral relations. The historical trace also reveals how thisfoundation first cracked under the pressures of Tiananmen and finally crumbled with the fall of the old Cold-War bipolarity.

With the original engagement rationale overcome by world events, the examination then focuses on answering the question of why the U.S. Army should renew its ties to the PLA. The answer is in three parts: first, China is relevant to U.S. interests; second, the United States can positively influence the PRC as China develops into a world power; and, third, one of America's most effective engagement tools is the U.S. Army.

After validating the role of the U.S. Army in the U.S.-PRC relationship, the study moves to an evaluation of the terms on which the U.S. Army should renew its engagement with the PLA. This begins with a determination of what went right and wrong for the U.S. Army during its initial peaceful interaction with the Chinese. From these lessons, five actions are recommended. To secure better terms in its renewed engagement with the PLA, the U.S. Army must:

  1. Establish a comprehensive long-range strategy with clearly identified mission objectives.
  2. Prioritize and coordinate (internally and externally) the identified objectives.
  3. Develop tactics, techniques, and procedures to attain these objectives.
  4. Establish measures of effectiveness to track the progress made toward the attainment of particular goals and objectives.
  5. Conduct periodic assessments to refine the engagement strategy.

Finally, in conducting this study, it was determined that a contributing factor to the ad hoc nature of Sino-American military ties is the lack of peacetime engagement doctrine. A final recommendation, therefore, is for the U.S. Army to use its ongoing work on the China engagement strategy as the baseline for the development of a broader peacetime engagement doctrine.


A historic opportunity is still present to secure a more orderly, less disruptive Chinese entry into international and regional affairs than occurred with the rise of other powers in the past century. But that opportunity will be lost if the leaders of China and the United States do not seize upon it during the coming decade.55

Part of the current U.S. China policy of comprehensive engagement, designed to take advantage of the historic opportunity mentioned above, is for the U.S. Army to renew its peacetime engagement with China's PLA. The reasons for renewed army-to-army ties are clear. First, China's relevance to U.S. interest, which is already significant, will increase with China's rapidly growing power. Second, the United States has resources at its disposal that can positively influence China's development. Finally, one of the most effective resources forengaging the PRC is America's Army.

To maximize its effectiveness as an instrument of U.S. China policy, the American Army must learn from its past interaction with the PLA. The recommendations offered here are by no means exhaustive. A significant limiting factor is the lack of peacetime engagement doctrine and supporting tactics, techniques, and procedures. Thus, a final recommendation is for the U.S. Army to use its ongoing work on the China engagement strategy as the baseline for the development of peacetime engagement doctrine. This doctrine should then yield the full range of tactics, techniques, and procedures necessary for building a clear, consistent, coordinated, and comprehensive campaign plan for engaging China's PLA. Such a carefully planned approach to peacefully engaging the PRC would, to paraphrase Rear Admiral McDevitt, be the modern day functional equivalent of America's Army "keeping its powder dry."


1. According to the 1995 National Military Strategy of the United States of America, peacetime engagement describes a broad range of noncombat activities undertaken by the Armed Forces that demonstrate commitment, improve collective military capabilities, promote democratic ideals, relieve sufering, and enhance regional stability. The elements of peacetime engagement include military to-military contacts, nation assistance, security assistance, humanitarian operations, counterdrug and counterterrorism, and peacekeeping. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Military Strategy of the United States of America, 1995, A Strategy of Flexible and Selective Engagement, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1995, pp. 8-9.

55.Michael Oksenberg, "Heading Off a New Cold War With China," The Washington Post, September 3, 1995, p. C-3.