When China's military intelligence chief arrives today to jump-start the stalled exchanges between the American and Chinese militaries, the Clinton administration plans to usher him in to meet senior U.S. diplomats and Pentagon officials.
But Sen. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) wants a Senate committee to greet China's "chief spy master" with a subpoena to testify instead. Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.) said that the general is simply the wrong person to build relations. "His business is disinformation," Cox said.
To China's critics in Congress, Lt. Gen. Xiong Guangkai has become a lightning rod. As the People's Liberation Army (PLA) deputy chief of staff and director of intelligence, Xiong, 60, was in charge of the Chinese officer who allegedly gave $300,000 to then-Democratic fund-raiser Johnny Chung to donate illegally to the Clinton reelection effort. Xiong also told a visiting American once that China could threaten to drop a nuclear bomb on Los Angeles to deter the United States from intervening in a conflict involving Taiwan.
Smith says Xiong could shed light on the theft of technology and many "controversial and still unresolved issues between the U.S. and China."
But other analysts point out that Xiong plays a wide role in U.S.-China relations and is a key member of the Chinese Communist Party's "leading group" on foreign policy, Beijing's most important foreign policy-making body.
As a result, Xiong's schedule today and Tuesday includes Undersecretary of Defense Walter B. Slocombe, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and other senior national security officials.
The flap over Xiong is part of a broader debate about Sino-American military contacts, which were suspended by Beijing after U.S. warplanes accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade last year during the Kosovo war.
The purposes of the exchanges: getting to know more about China's strategy and modernization, and getting cooperation on such issues as nonproliferation and North Korea.
For most of the past few years, the Clinton administration has tried to build China's confidence in U.S. intentions by showing PLA officers American facilities and weapons systems. Chinese officers have attended exercises showing how the United States might respond to a crisis in the Pacific, and the United States also gave China advice and computer software to help it do its own war games and coordinate different services.
The glimpses of American military were also intended to prevent China from underestimating U.S. power were there a clash over Taiwan. China refuses to renounce force in reunifying the mainland and the self-governing island of Taiwan; Washington wants the dispute settled peacefully.
But some experts say the contacts have backfired, giving China a sense of vulnerability and an incentive to build up its military. Critics say Chinese officers have gained useful intelligence about U.S. equipment, strategy and vulnerabilities.
"We let him fly in our planes and visit our ships," said Larry Wortzel, a retired U.S. Army colonel and former military attache in Beijing, now at the Heritage Foundation.
U.S. military contacts began with intelligence-sharing under Presidents Richard M. Nixon and Gerald R. Ford, when both nations were focused on the Soviet threat. President Ronald Reagan sold China military helicopters, radars and torpedoes, and helped modernize Chinese fighter aircraft. But the bloody Chinese army crackdown on Tiananmen Square demonstrations in 1989 led to the severing of military ties. Those sanctions remain in effect. Military relations resumed under Clinton in late 1993 but grew strained again after China's threatening missile tests near Taiwan in 1996.
Kenneth W. Allen, a former Air Force officer and China expert at the Stimson Center, says exchanges are the best way to learn about China's military and influence future Chinese military leaders.
A senior State Department official said Xiong will discuss plans for military-to-military exchanges over the next year.
Wortzel, who favors limited PLA contacts, said "we've done some silly things." To prevent that, Congress last fall limited the scope of Sino-American military exchanges. Congress blocked PLA contacts regarding force projection, nuclear operations, joint combat operations, advanced logistics, weapons of mass destruction, surveillance and reconnaissance operations, joint war-fighting experiments, military technology transfers and Defense Department laboratories.
Gone is the talk of "strategic partnerships," once cited by Clinton administration officials. The legislation said any Chinese military contact should be weighed as a potential "national security risk."