Do Mil-Mil Exchanges With the Chinese Do More Harm than Good?

The PLAN destroyer Xi’an berths in Pearl Harbor to take part in the June 2016 RIMPAC exercises.
Original Source.

Near the beginning of Ian Easton’s excellent new book, which I shall be reviewing for another publication, is an interesting story. It is commonly claimed that increased contact (or “exchange”) between those under Party employ and those serving in Western governments will bring greater peace, harmony, and understanding to international relations. But things often do not work out that way:

I passed most days in isolation, clipping and evaluating Chinese military articles. It was interesting and meaningful work, but also a bit tedious. So when there was an opportunity to get away from my desk and socialize, I always jumped at it. As a result, I got to meet quite a few of China’s “barbarian handlers,” the English-speaking generals, intelligence officers, and state scholars Beijing uses to shape elite opinion around the world.

At the time, Chinese delegations visited Washington regularly for military-to-military dialogues, some of which CNA hosted. These were supposed to be trust-building exercises. However, as far as I could tell, not much trust was ever built. Quite the opposite. Those Chinese generals I met seemed to regard Americans with a coldness bordering on hatred. It was startling, but I wasn’t there to make friends.

My mission was to learn more about how they saw the world. As an analyst, I viewed it as my job to figure out what made them tick. It was one thing to read what they wrote, quite another to meet them in person and hear what they had to say and watch how they acted.

The delegations were always vehement on Taiwan. It was more than apparent that China, or at least the cadres in the Chinese Communist Party, had an obsession. After watching one Chinese official after another argue full-throatily about his nation’s “core interest” in subjugating Taiwan, I began to see why the island’s government thought it prudent to hold yearly air raid drills. 

One of these exchanges was particularly unpleasant. We threw a banquet-style dinner, and I found myself sitting at a table with three Chinese generals, who evidently spoke no English, and a friendly American naval officer, who spoke German, but not Chinese. Very little of substance was said during the course of the meal, and it was awkward. The American naval officer kept trying to make polite conversation with the Chinese generals, using me as the interpreter, but he was getting nowhere. They were rude and hostile.

Finally, in desperation, the officer said, “You know, I was in the Pentagon on 9/11, and lost friends that day. If nothing else, our two militaries can agree that terrorism is a common threat to us both. We can cooperate and work together to prevent similar tragedies from happening in the future.” I translated this for the Chinese.

In reply, a scrawny political officer, who the other two generals were visibly afraid of, said that the United States deserved to be attacked by terrorists on 9/11. Why? For the grave sin of interfering in other’s internal affairs. “That’s what you get,” he sneered.

I couldn’t believe what had just been said about the murder of three thousand innocent Americans and didn’t know what to tell the friendly naval officer. I paused for a long moment, thinking carefully about the words the general had used. Finally, I huddled in with the officer and whispered, “Sir, he just said…”

He was a power lifter, and the veins on his thick neck began to bulge out. Luckily for the Chinese, it was announced just then that the banquet was over. The general, no doubt sensing he had gone too far, abruptly stood up and scurried away. Before another word could be said, he joined others at the door and rushed out to board an awaiting bus. Few words were exchanged between us Americans as we got up and left the table. It felt like we had just extended an olive branch only to have seen it spit on.

I would never see Sino-American relations quite the same way after that. I was not the only one. I ran into that friendly officer several years later at a Naval War College conference, and he recalled the story. He then told me that other Chinese officers had acted even more disrespectfully at events he had attended more recently in Hawaii. He concluded soberly there was probably little “trust building” could achieve in the absence of shared values and goodwill. [1]

Easton’s story is hardly unique. To pick one example, I have found no group in the United States government more implacably hostile to the People’s Republic than PACOM officers forced to endure the PLA’s participation in RIMPAC. From a Chinese perspective it is almost a wonder that they go at all. I can only conclude that the intelligence they gather must be especially precious if it is valued above the incredible ill-will their presence there generates.

Shifting attitudes towards mainland Chinese among the people of Taiwan is the same story writ large. The surging tide of anti-mainland opinion began, surprisingly enough, with the surge in cross-strait activities that followed the 2008 opening up between the two countries. So often familiarly does not breed sympathy, but contempt. This is a fatal flaw in any peace program (e.g., those outlined by Lyle Goldstein) that hope to use ‘exchanges’ as stepping stones to a more durable peace.


[1] Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan’s Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (Washington DC: Project 2049 Institute, 2017), 9-10.

Leave a Comment


Wow, they sound worse then the old Kaiser with his saber rattling. Sort of a Kaiser-like group effort with way less manners.

I've been reading on D-Day recently – the British 79th Armored Division "Funnies" to be exact. The difficulty of a cross channel invasion is stupendous. Granted, your not having to fight the Wehrmacht, but the Chinese don't seem to have even close to the training level of the Western Allies.

The track record of the U.S. Navy since WW2 is misleading some people as to how hard it can be to pull off a successful invasion. Even if you get ashore, you still have to keep from being bottled up and pounded on the beaches.

You above everyone else should know that its a weak man's method to use antidotes rather than data/statistics to support ones arguments.

Its pretty easy to find another similar perspective of the arrogance from US military officer/diplomat's treatment towards other country and the impression it leaves to them, go ahead just google it, there is a reason the Arrogant American stereotypes if pretty famous all over the world.

But anyhow, its sad to see your article change, you were one of the few level headed analysts when it come to Chinese matters, now you are no better than people such as Gordon Chang, Rich Fisher, George Friedman etc

Oh and PS, instead of blame China for Taiwan's attitude shift on China, why not go study Taiwan's own brainwashing "Free media"'s coverage towards China? On how Taiwan's DPP is deliberately on purpose spreading hate on everything that is mainland China, or the very very active and deliberate effort on educating/brainwashing its young people on how they are not Chinese etc…

But nooooooo, I'm sure the 100000% of the fault lies with mainland China. … oh well, go ahead keep up the hate mongering agenda.

I can't believe reading this article vs the article you wrote 5-10 years ago.

Pathetic, oh and it goes without saying go ahead sensor this comment as well, simpley because it does not fit your official narrative.

The plural of anecdote is not data. But anecdote can be useful for understanding trends in the data–in this case, my observation that the more personal contact a member of the U.S. military has had with the Party and its army, the less charitable view they have of it. This is just a personal observation, of course. Do with it what you will.

As for Taiwan: I never did blame China, or the Chinese, for the Taiwanese public's failing confidence in them. I simply noted a truth easily forgotten: familiarity breeds contempt. The Taiwanese had certain expectations as to how mainlanders would act, and how they would be treated in the mainland. Those expectations were not met.

But I have made this case before, at length. Feel free to read that post, which I wrote back when I lived in Taiwan and had the opportunity to freely discuss with Taiwanese of all ages and political persuasions exactly how they felt about the mainland.

As for my turn against the Party: you are correct, there has been a rather sharp turn against the Party in my writing over the last year or so. ("Ten years ago" is a bit of a stretch; the blog has only been around for nine years, and it did not adopt a China focus until 2013 or so). I have pondered what has caused this change in attitude. Part of it has been the course of history–the consolidation under Xi, the extension of Party tentacles into many things once good but now tainted–but the larger story is this: I moved to China and experienced what Party rule meant for myself. It was easy to romanticize or excuse tyranny when I lived far from it. No longer. My time hobknobbing with China's elites has disabused me of many things,. Ambivalence to the Party is just the most notable one.

"…the absence of shared values and goodwill." is the key phrase in the anecdote you related. And if an appreciation of that is made more widespread amongst our Navy officers by these exercises, then the exercises will be of great value to the Americans. Whether that appreciation by more military officers can overcome the "If we just talk to them they will be our buddies." attitudes of the international relations graduates of the best schools who mostly run our foreign policy, is, however, another question.

I don't think the PLAN gets much intel from these exercises. They seem to get everything, and I mean everything, they desire via internet spying. I am guessing they participate for the fun of snubbing the big nose barbarians in their own backyards with impunity. That explanation may not pass muster in a graduate seminar at Harvard, but it does in the unsupervised playground seminar.

Mr. Greer, have you read the book Crashback? It is about the developing tensions between the USN and PLAN. It does not fill an American with confidence, even less when I combine it with your anecdote.