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The Cyclical US-China Military Relationship

February 21, 2012

According to US Army Colonel Randy Lawrence, the US-China military relationship has been "stuck in a cyclical nature of starting and stopping, with no real improvement over the past 25 years."

Lawrence is currently a student at the US Naval War College. From 2008 to 2011, he served as the Executive Officer to the US Defense Attaché in China. On February 16, Lawrence gave a talk at the Watson Institute's Joukowsy Forum titled "The Future of U.S.-China Relations: Cooperation or Competition?"

US-Chinese relations began as a cold war alliance opposed to the Soviet Union. This culminated in Washington agreeing to sell Black Hawk helicopters to Beijing in 1985, in what is now considered a high point of the bilateral military relationship. The Tiananmen Incident in 1989, however, brought the relationship to a screeching halt.

In the 1990s, the White House again sought to engage China. The Clinton administration believed that the best way to ensure that China act responsibly was to make sure it had a stake in the international community. Relations between the two countries warmed somewhat, only to cool rapidly after it emerged that the US had mistakenly bombed the Chinese embassy in Yugoslavia.

Relations went further downhill in 2001. In April of that year, a US intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese fighter jet off Hainan Island in Southern China, causing outrage in China. Later that year, following 9/11, the Pentagon began a decade-long shift in attention towards the Middle East at the expense of East Asia.

As the War on Terror winds down, the Obama administration has promised a "pivot" back towards East Asia. Despite this, Lawrence is not optimistic that military relations will improve significantly.

In his opinion, "China uses the anti-US card to drum up support." Lawrence said that during the 10 years he was in China, he could "count on one hand the number of positive articles about the US." He does not think this bodes well for the future development of US-China relations.

Lawrence also said that China is frustrated by America's soft power. "They think that CNN is a CIA front, and that's how they (the Americans) get their message out to the world." The Chinese have invested heavily in transforming CCTV into an influential global media network, but have so far been frustrated by the lack of results. Lawrence said that Chinese leaders are especially worried about the spread of democratic ideals and values among the young in China, and think it will eventually lead to domestic instability.

In addition, China "sees itself as leader of the third world and leader of the anti-Western contingency." This is particularly true in Africa, where China has a significant presence.

Lawrence concluded by suggesting that America reduce expectations for US-China cooperation. He feels that the best way to engage China is through multilateral organizations both sides are comfortable with, such as the Shangri-La Dialogue held in Singapore every year.

Colonel Lawrence's talk was co-sponsored by the Department of East Asian Studies and the Year of China at Brown University, and the Asia-Pacific Studies Group at the Naval War College.

By Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Kai Herng Loh '14