ON June 5, 1989, President Bush announced a series of measures to convey to the Chinese government American revulsion at the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Among these was suspension of "high-level contacts" (deputy secretary level or higher) between the American and Chinese militaries.
Since then, every other part of the United States government has resumed contacts with its counterpart organizations in China, yet there is still a virtual ban on contacts with the Chinese military by anyone in the Defense Department except US attaches in Beijing. This is seriously inhibiting American nonproliferation efforts.
If the US is serious about slowing the spread of weapons and missile technologies, it is past time to resume contacts at all levels with the Chinese People's Liberation Army. PLA organizations are among China's most dangerous and flagrant arms exporters. If the US doesn't talk to the Chinese military, it is not talking to the Chinese who can really do something about limiting weapons proliferation.
This is not to say that the US should resume arms transfers to China, nor that it should reconstruct friendly military-to-military relations. Quite the contrary. The US needs to convey some strong messages to the PLA regarding arms control and nonproliferation. US Department of Defense personnel, military and civilian, must convey American concerns to the Chinese who make crucial decisions about those matters.
With whom in China are we negotiating currently? The State Department talks to its counterparts in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Unfortunately, Chinese diplomats are ignorant about much of what the PLA is doing, including arms transfers and proliferation matters.
A telling illustration occurred in June 1991, when a spokesman for China's Foreign Affairs Ministry admitted that China had sold "very small quantities of short-range tactical missiles" to Pakistan.
When asked by reporters if they were M-11 missiles, he responded, "We don't call it the M-11, but you call it the M-11." In fact, M-11 is a Chinese designation which has been used in their missile-sales literature for several years; the ministry spokesman simply did not know that.
The US is denying itself an important line of communication; effectively letting influential Chinese military leaders off the hook. Last spring China announced it was prepared to adhere to the guidelines and parameters of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an international agreement to control nuclear technology.
In May, Richard Clark, the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs, led a delegation to Beijing to explain the US interpretation of the MTCR. Mr. Clark and the diplomats in his team explained to Chinese diplomats, in legalistic terms, how Washington interprets MTCR guidelines and parameters, and what "compliance" entails.
ALTHOUGH PLA representatives attended the meetings, no Defense Department counterparts were present to discuss technical aspects. Only one US military officer was even included in the Clark delegation.
Even in the limited military-to-military contact that exists, the US has been completely cut off from top PLA officers because the Chinese are quite particular about "face" and prestige.
No Chinese lieutenant general will listen to a presentation, let alone answer hard questions, from an American lieutenant colonel. It will take a senior American general or high-ranking defense official to even get a meeting with a senior PLA general.
Now, perhaps, is the ideal time for reestablishing contacts, a move prevented by over-cautious bureaucrats.
Undoubtedly, the Chinese would attempt to portray such and acts as American admission that its post-Tiananmen policy was wrong. Undoubtedly too, renewed contact would provoke some domestic reaction in the US.
Mr. Bush, however, is in a strong position to allow a resumption of mid-level contacts with the PLA, having only recently announced F-16 fighter sales to Taiwan. That demonstrated his hard-nosed attitude toward China on military issues.
Resumed military contacts could be normalized well before President-elect Clinton's inauguration, thus sparing the new administration any embarrassment. The contacts would increase opportunities for American military officials to talk turkey with the Chinese and to pose difficult questions about arms proliferation to senior PLA officers not presently confronted.