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The Military Dimensions of U.S. – China Security Cooperation: Retrospective and Future Prospects

David M. Finkelstein
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Introduction and Overview

The United States and China have engaged in security cooperation on a variety of international issues since the normalization of relations in 1979. In fact, security cooperation began even before the formal establishment of state-to-state relations. We recall that during the height of the Cold War the two nations demonstrated that when a pressing and shared security concern (in that case, the former Soviet Union) presented itself, Washington and Beijing were capable of working together, extant differences notwithstanding. Security consultations and sometime security cooperation between the two countries continue today. But as the record of security cooperation is reviewed, one comes to the conclusion that, for the most part, U.S.-China security cooperation has been mainly of a political nature and operationalized at a high level of strategic policy coordination. Security cooperation between the two nations has been largely the purview of U.S. and Chinese civilian officials and diplomats, not generals and admirals. In other words, over the course of thirty years of relations, security cooperation between the defense-military establishments of the United States and China — the uniformed services — has been the exception rather than the rule. If a serious discussion about future security cooperation between the U.S. Navy and the PLA Navy is to take place — a leitmotif of this series of conferences as described by the sponsors — then some of the issues, challenges, and problems from the past need to be confronted even as we look over the horizon. For the purposes of this paper “security cooperation” is defined as the two militaries working together to achieve a common objective — not high-level visits, exchanges, port calls, or other activities that are mainly symbolic or representational in nature.

This paper offers the following arguments as a basis for further discussion:

  • The habits of security cooperation between the defense-military establishments of China and the United States are not well developed, especially between the operational elements of the two militaries, for which the record is near nil.
  • Over the course of thirty years of defense relations, only for a period of time during the decade of the 1980s did the two defense-military establishments engage in anything close to security cooperation as defined by this paper — and that was a function of the unique and shared existential threat posed by the Soviet Union.
  • Since the end of the Cold War, prospects for security cooperation between the two defense-military establishments have been constrained by the contentious issue of Taiwan, by other strategic- and operational-level issues that have resulted in mistrust between defense officials on both sides of the Pacific, by domestic politics in both capitals, and by a recurring cycle of suspensions in military relations.
  • Looking to the second decade of the 21st century, the hypothetical prospects for security cooperation between the U.S. and Chinese defense-military establishments are once again on the rise, especially in the maritime domain and in the realm of non-traditional security.
  • At bottom, however, the fundamental prerequisite for future security cooperation between the two defense-military establishments is a sound and stable military-to- military relationship. Currently, a sound and stable military-to-military relationship is lacking.
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Details

  • Pages: 38
  • Document Number: CIM D0023640.A1/Final
  • Publication Date: 9/1/2010
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