Structural Dissonance: The U.S.-PRC Defense Relationship, 1979-1989

Eric Setzekorn


In the decade between U.S. diplomatic recognition of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1979 and the Tiananmen Massacre in 1989, the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) pursued a military engagement policy with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The 1979-1989 U.S.-PRC defense relationship was driven by a mutually shared fear of the USSR, but U.S. policymakers also sought to encourage the PRC to become a more deeply involved in the world community as a responsible power. Beginning in the late 1970s, the U.S. defense department conducted high level exchanges, allowed for the transfer of defense technology, promoted military to military cooperation and brokered foreign military sales (FMS). On the U.S. side, this program was strongly supported by National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski and Secretary of State Alexander Haig, who worked to push skeptical elements in the U.S. defense bureaucracy. By the mid-1980s, this hesitancy had been overcome and the defense relationship reached a high point in the 1984-1986 period, but structural problems arising from the division of authority within the PRC’s party-state-military structure ultimately proved insurmountable to long-term cooperation. The 1979-1989 U.S.-PRC defense relationship highlights the long-term challenges of pursuing military engagement with fundamentally dissimilar structures of political authority.

The views expressed are the personal opinions of the author. They do not represent the position of the U.S. Army Center of Military History, or any other agency of the federal government.

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