One felicitous result of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan was the setting up of a military-to-military relationship between China and the United States 30 years ago. The move was born of mutual fear of Russian expansion, for no one could foresee then that Afghanistan would be the undoing of Soviet power and that the Soviet Union itself would collapse partly because of it.
Nor was it clear then that China would emerge in the next century as the potential rival to American power in the Pacific. But militaries have their own codes and their own ways of thinking and it is always a good idea to keep them talking and getting to know each other.
Recently China put a halt to these exchanges because of American arms sales to Taiwan — which are mandated by American law. When Secretary of Defense Robert Gates asked if he could come to Beijing as part of his five-nation tour earlier this year he was rebuffed.
The exchanges began in the Carter administration, soon after the Soviet invasion, when Secretary of Defense Harold Brown visited Beijing.
“Brown’s visit marked the wary beginning of the formal relationship between two military establishments whose most recent view of each other had been over gun sights in the Korean Peninsula 27 years before,” wrote the old China-hand Nicholas Platt in his recent memoir “China Boys.”
Platt, a retired State Department officer who was seconded to the department of defense and accompanied Brown, writes that the Chinese could not get used to the idea of a Pentagon hotline in their midst. They would not get around to setting one up until 2008.
Most of the Chinese generals and admirals that Brown met were well into their seventies and beyond, for retirement was unthinkable in those days.
“The freefall from four-star rank to life in one’s home village was just too far,” according to Platt. Back then the Chinese had none of the support systems of a fruitful retirement that old soldiers in America enjoyed. They peppered the American delegation about annuities, promotion rates and jobs in industry.
A Chinese military delegation followed up Brown’s visit with a trip to Washington, and was taken to visit military facilities in Indiana, Colorado, California and Hawaii. The U.S. side looked for “ways to improve China’s defense capability without threatening others,” according to Platt.
One of the things China really wanted was help in developing sophisticated fighter planes — especially advanced radars, electronics and guidance systems — so its planes could match the Soviet MIG-23, which the Vietnamese had been given. In those days, China was more than a little annoyed at the Vietnamese for invading Cambodia, and in a short, sharp incursion to teach Vietnam a lesson, the Chinese had come off second best.
The Americans were not willing to share with the Chinese at that level, but the relationship developed despite that early disappointment. It would later expand and flower under Secretary of Defense William Perry, who served President Bill Clinton.
There have been stresses and strains in America’s relationship with China since then, and the pity is that the first thing to get curtailed when we have a spat is the military exchanges. The United States suspended them after the suppression of the Tiananmen demonstrations, and China followed suit after the recent arms sales to Taiwan.
Many China watchers have wondered why the Obama administration ran into such hostility after the president’s visit with the Dalai Lama and the sale of arms to Taiwan. After all, American presidents often meet with the Dalai Lama, and the Taiwan arms sales have been a regular feature since Congress mandated them in 1979, before Harold Brown’s visit.
Nicholas Platt, who still visits China several times a year as a private citizen and is well respected there, believes the big fuss and the slighting of Gates is due to what the Chinese perceive as a changed relationship between the two countries.
The last eight years have seen American power decline and the Chinese have looked on with wonder as we Americans seemingly self-destruct with two wars on the mainland of Asia and what looks to many as the failure of the U.S. economic model in the current great recession. What was acceptable to the Chinese before is no longer acceptable now. The relationship is less unequal today than it was when China was trying to catch up with the Vietnamese military and begging for radar systems.
China and the United States should realize the intrinsic value in military exchanges that will only grow more important in years to come. These exchanges should not be the first to go every time the two countries want to show displeasure.
H. D. S. Greenway, an American journalist who served in the U.S. Navy from 1958-1960.