This article discusses the rationale and evolution of U.S. defense exports to the People's Republic of China (PRC) during the final decade of the Cold War. The article is based on a large body of primary sources, including newly declassified documents, congressional hearings, and interviews with key officials. It shows that, contrary to what is often assumed in the literature, U.S. officials’ assessments of the optimal degree of defense cooperation with Beijing did not result solely from the objective of using the “China card” against the Soviet Union. A broader range of national security considerations shaped U.S. military cooperation with the PRC, including a desire not to enhance China's offensive capabilities vis-à-vis the United States and its Asia-Pacific friends and allies, the impact of defense transfers to China on U.S.-Soviet diplomatic relations, and the willingness of China to cooperate on nuclear proliferation. Faced with conflicting national security interests, the United States had to make delicate trade-offs in its military relationship with the PRC.

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