The U.S. Needs to Stop Arming and Training China’s Military

by | Feb 3, 2001

Part of the reason U.S. military leaders give away too much is naiveté, not disloyalty. Part of the explanation for such actions is this romantic sense of wanting to give China something in the hopes of developing a friendship. People do really dumb things.

This is an edited transcript of a talk giving by Larry Wortzel.

How, under what circumstances, to what extent should the U.S. have relations with China’s military? What is the purpose of these relations? What should the Chinese see? What should we see? How should this relationship be structured?

These are abstract issues, and to answer them we need to look at some concrete facts from reality.

As a military attaché, I had to act as the eyes on the ground: to observe, collect legally, and report on developments in the Chinese military. That’s what diplomats and military attachés do, and it is very interesting. But there was always a stream of generals that wanted some Peking duck, or to walk on the Great Wall, or to fly an SU-27, or stand on the bridge of Chinese destroyer — and would discuss just about anything to get it.

It is the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2000, Title 7, Subtitle A, Section 1201, that restricted what the Department of Defense can do with the Chinese military. These restrictions are the best thing that ever could have happened as far as I am concerned. I thought it was superb legislation that was absolutely necessary in a sense because of the “ardent suitor” problem.

“Ardent suitor” is a great description. Everybody has, at one time or another, been in love with someone, to where you would do anything to get closer, nearer to that object of desire, and then that person or thing would set the terms of how you would relate to it. You’d go a little closer, give more gifts, put out some more puppy chow, you name it.

In a sense, that is what went on and goes on — the ardent suitor simply forgets the United States national interest and seeks contact with China under China’s terms. A certain romanticism enters into U.S.-China relations. Even the use of the term “relationship” belies this, as though the articulation of national interest was about When Harry Met Sally . We must avoid this romanticism and focus on the national interest.

Now, through military-to-military contacts with China, we did learn some things. I want to address this issue of the 82nd Airborne Division. When I was in China the first time, before the Tiananmen Square massacre the United States was selling the Chinese technology and equipment. The Chinese military, for its part, was very up-front about what they wanted from America. Military contacts with the United States had one purpose for them, and that was gaining new military technology. They told us that.

And the United States was very up-front. The United States told the Chinese military that “We are happy to sell equipment to you. We don’t care if you put it on the Soviet border because we don’t like the Soviets, or if you put it on the Vietnamese border because we don’t much like them either, just as long as you shoot it at Russians and Vietnamese.” That was the deal.

Under these conditions, when things were going well, you could walk in and say, “I’d really like to jump out of one of your airborne division’s airplanes with a rifle squad or an airborne squad and see how good your people are.” And I did, just like that, spend a couple of days down there. This provided some real insight into how well the People’s Liberation Army’s airborne forces are trained — and they are very well-trained — as well as how they do their equipment checks. These were wonderful direct insights.

The leaders of the Chinese military came to the United States and stated, “We’d sure like to see an airborne mass tactical parachute jump.” “That’s fine,” the Department of Defense said. “We’ll show it to you.” We were happy to show it to them because we thought maybe they would use whatever they learned somewhere against the Soviets. Times change. There was Tiananmen, and the Soviet Union collapsed. Things are different today.

A four-star general came out to China some years ago and decided he was going to hand out “candy” to turn the Chinese into great friends. To do this, he gave the PLA the simulation and software for how to run a brigade and division integrated attack. At that time, I was only a major in the Army. I would sit down and say, “General, this really isn’t a good thing. You just don’t want to do this.” But he did what he wanted, based on some romantic view of making the PLA over along American lines.

About nine years later, I visited their army command college, and there’s that software, simulating attacks across the Taiwan Strait modified and improved by the PLA. Folks, we don’t want to make the PLA more effective, especially against Taiwan.

At another time, I escorted another delegation that was very useful. We were sitting down at the U.S. Army’s Training and Doctrine Command, and one of the Chinese generals, who had never been to the U.S. before, pulls out a list of 19 field manuals. After a long discourse on Sino-U.S. friendship, including an invitation to the U.S. general to visit Beijing to see the Great Wall, he says to the host, “What’s the chance of getting these field manuals?” He hands the list of what he wants to the American general, who says, “Oh, no problem, we will take care of it.”

So I said, “General, can I look at that?” What the PLA officer had requested were U.S. manuals on electronic warfare, electronic countermeasures and countermeasure evasion, and information operations. I asked the Chinese officer how the list was compiled, and he said that these were the only manuals he couldn’t get off the Internet.

And, of course, the American general ordered somebody to get the manuals and hand them over to the Chinese guest. I stopped him and I said, “No, you don’t want to do this, General. If you want to do anything, send them to me in China and I will exchange them one for one if the PLA comes up with similar manuals. But do not give it to them.”

Part of the reason U.S. military leaders give away too much is naiveté, not disloyalty. Part of the explanation for such actions is this romantic sense of wanting to give China something in the hopes of developing a friendship. People do really dumb things.

Another interesting example of American naiveté was in responding to the PLA orders for parts when the U.S. Department of Defense sold them artillery-locating radars. The lowest parts use rate in a TPQ-37 artillery-locating radar worldwide, regardless of climate, were the cathode ray tubes and map drums. The Chinese, however, were ordering cathode ray tubes at an extraordinary rate, and the U.S. Army was sending them in response to the orders. A year later, the PLA remanufactured or reverse-engineered the AN/TPQ-37 and manufactured a version of it, the Type 704 radar, that they sell to Libya and Pakistan and Iran and Iraq. Sitting by and watching this happen was patently dumb. Any program with the PLA requires good oversight.

Many senior U.S. officers argue that there is great deterrence in transparency. They seem to believe that if the U.S. military shows China everything it has, deterrence will be enhanced. My response to that concept is that the United States showed the PLA everything it needed to see about the quality of American power and deterrence in the Gulf War. The United States also did a pretty decent job of showing the PLA how the U.S. military works in Sudan and Afghanistan where factories associated with Osama bin Laden were attacked. The U.S. didn’t do a bad job showing the PLA a little deterrence when U.S. ships struck Iraqi radar sites with Tomahawk missiles from 1,500 miles away.

You don’t have to show the PLA Navy exactly how a U.S. ship works to demonstrate deterrence. And if you choose to let the PLA Navy visit the ship, you don’t need to explain how to construct or operate it.

My disagreement with military-to-military contacts as I saw them conducted was that the admirals, with all due respect, show the PLA Navy how things work and then tell the PLA how to make their own operations more efficient. American military officers tend to look at something and, if they perceive it to be wrong, suggest how to make it better. This is a colossal mistake. The U.S. has no business making the Chinese People’s Liberation Army a more effective fighting force or improving its weaponry.

Other parts of transparency are inviting PLA officers to see U.S. military exercises. I believe that the U.S. should insist on reciprocity but should also decide what is in the national interest. In 1988, I brought a major general, the director of the PLA operations department, to the U.S. to visit Fort Benning and Fort Bragg. This was a time when Sino-U.S. relations were oriented on the Soviet threat. We showed him how things worked, and he showed us a few things in return back in China. After 1989, however, because the U.S. suspended military programs with China, he showed us nothing.

In 1997, there was another PLA visit to the U.S. This time, the Chinese leaders only viewed open public events. We showed him Fort Benning, Georgia’s Airborne 5000, a demonstration that goes on publicly for everybody, and the Victory Pond Ranger demonstration. Personally, I think that’s fair. I have been to the 6th Tank Division of the People’s Liberation Army so many times that I have my own drinking cup. They know me. I know them.

The guy who was the operations officer when I first went there is now the division commander. He laughs, we drink, he shows the U.S. nothing, and that’s the end of it. The PLA should be treated the same way unless there is some clear benefit to the U.S. for doing otherwise.

I don’t know how many might be familiar with Colonel David Barrett, a former U.S. military attaché to China and the Dixie Mission. If you follow what went on with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in 1944 when the OSS went up to deal with the Communists, one could say that Barrett was a little bit sympathetic to the Communist cause. He thought they were less corrupt as a military force than the Nationalists and better led.

He decided a good idea would be to turn the Communists into allies, arm them as best you can, and use them against the Japanese. He perhaps exceeded his orders and may have forgotten that after the war was about over, the Communists would go on to prosecute their civil war. The U.S. commander in China, General [Albert C.] Wedemeyer, relieved him. But its not that Barrett was disloyal to the U.S. He had a romantic view of what the Communists might do if they were in power.

Today, a very strange American tendency is that when military staffs prepare an engagement plan on how the U.S. military should engage with foreign militaries — this is a real engagement plan at a major command — it’s a mechanical thing. It doesn’t necessarily distinguish between friends and allies and potential competitors.

The same person who approaches the engagement plan for Malaysia, for instance, with the idea of improving the efficiency of the Malaysian armed forces, or the South Koreans, who are our allies, often does the China plan. And in working on a mechanism for military contacts with China, the same guy does the engagement plan with the same approach. The objective becomes making the PLA better so that perhaps the U.S. and China can be ready to fight alongside each other. This is a huge error. Right now, the PLA is more likely to crush democratic activists than threats to the peace and stability of the world.

Here are a few simple criteria for military relations with the Chinese armed forces: Do nothing to improve the PLA’s capability to wage war against Taiwan or U.S. friends and allies, do nothing to improve the PLA’s ability to project force, and do nothing to improve the PLA’s ability to further repress the Chinese people — three simple criteria. It leaves a lot of room for things to do, and I think things do need to be done.

In closing, when my friend Bates Gill testified a couple of weeks ago in front of the House Armed Services Committee, he had a great throwaway line about all the Chinese arms purchases from the Russians. He said you could give him a $5,000 set of golf clubs, and that doesn’t make him Tiger Woods because he doesn’t know how to use them. Thus, the clubs are of no intrinsic value.

If it was a debate instead of testimony, and I could have responded to Bates. I’d have said, “Bates, if the club was made with a sensor so that the sweet spot always hit the ball no matter what you did, and the ball had a sensor that could detect the signature of the hole and always go in the hole, you don’t have to be Tiger Woods.” I’ll leave it at that.

Made available by the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation Edited by Capitalism Magazine. Dr. Larry Wortzel, the Director of our Asian Studies Center, twice served the U.S. Army in China — first as the Assistant Army Attaché and second as the Army Attaché.

Larry Wortzel is director of the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation ( Originally published in The Washington Times (01/11/00)

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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