Of all things that have a long-lasting negative impact on the Sino-US military-to-military relationship, nothing has been comparable to the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2000 (NDAA).
Enacted by the US Congress on October 5, 1999, NDAA restricts “inappropriate exposure” of the PLA to 12 operational areas such as force-projection operations, nuclear operations, advanced combined-arms and joint combat operations, advanced logistical operations, capabilities related to weapons of mass destruction; surveillance and reconnaissance operations, joint war fighting experiments and military space operations. It also requires annual reports on contacts with the PLA. The fear is that any exchanges in these areas might contribute to PLA’s warfighting capabilities and “create a national security risk”.
Sixteen years later, clearly the act hasn’t been able to play its “due role” of impeding the growth of the strength of the PLA. China’s booming defense industry is more capable than ever of providing indigenously made state–of-the-art weaponry and equipment to the PLA, as showcased in recent Tiananmen Square parade; the PLA can draw lessons from its own scenario-based joint exercises and drills; the PLA can also learn from its joint exercises with other countries, especially from its regular exercises with Russia. In short, PLA’s growth of strength doesn’t necessarily depend on its exchanges with the US.
The American military certainly know how important it is to maintain collaboration with the PLA. Sometimes they are even willing to take the risk of “violating” the legislated restrictions, although in a limited way. For example, in spite of protests from some corner of Capitol Hill, Pentagon had invited the PLA to attend the non-combat parts of the US-led RIMPAC 2014 and Cobra Gold exercises. The two militaries also held joint exercises in counter-piracy in the Gulf of Aden and a humanitarian assistance and disaster-relief exercise at Hainan Island.
The intent on the American side is not difficult to understand. First of all, without exchanges such as visits to China and policy talks, the US military would not be able to monitor the fast development of the PLA, a potential competitor. Secondly, the PLA Navy and Air Force are operating farther away from the mainland; therefore the chances of unplanned encounter, be it in China’s EEZ or anywhere in the world, have increased. The danger of miscalculations, as proved in F-8/EP-3 collision crisis of 2001 and the narrowly avoided collision of the USS Cowpens with a Chinese warship in 2013, will simply grow. As the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Peter Pace, once said, the primary concern of the bilateral relationship was “miscalculation and misunderstanding based on misinformation”. Finally, China and the US relations are sometimes described as “frenemies”, therefore the mil-to-mil relationship is not totally hostile. The two militaries are partners in humanitarian aid and disaster relief and counter-piracy. They are also discussing about new fields of cooperation such as peacekeeping and counter-terrorism.
However, the American attitude towards exchanges with the PLA is selective. When it wishes to know more of PLA’s capabilities especially in nuclear, space and cyber areas, the US military stresses the waiver authority of the defense secretary; that is, the American secretary of defense can lift congressional restrictions when he believes that an exchange is not “inappropriate”, however in areas that the PLA is interested but the US military doesn’t wish to expose, it cites the congressional restrictions as an excuse.
This is politically discriminatory and unacceptable for the PLA. The PLA maintains that exchanges can only be mutually beneficial and on equal footing. They are not at the mercy of the American side. Ironically the PLA can also make use of NDAA when necessary. The PLA representatives can easily embarrass their American counterparts by reminding them that discussions on nuclear, space and cyber issues, as requested by the American side, are “inappropriate” according to American law.
What is the future of NDAA? It looks clumsy, but it will probably survive, in part because of two “backdoors” that are deliberately left open — the waiver authority of the secretary of defense, and exceptions granted to search & rescue or humanitarian operation or exercise. These “backdoors” allow flexibility and a tacit understanding between Capitol Hill and the White House. No American presidents have even attempted to challenge the act, although some “violations” did happen during their administrations.
However, the NDAA is becoming a handicap on the American military. The 12 operational areas cover all-important areas such as operations, training and logistics. If the legislated restrictions are observed strictly, essentially there won’t be any significant mil-to-mil exchanges between the two sides. As time goes on, the Pentagon will have to prove that exchanges with the PLA in the forbidden areas are not “inappropriate”. More “violations” of the restrictions are bound to happen, until the act cannot be upheld anymore.