The resumption of military communications between the United States and China, following a precarious 16-month interruption, marks a significant shift in the dynamics of international relations, particularly in the realm of security and defense. This crucial development, catalyzed by a summit agreement between President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping, is not just a diplomatic formality but a necessary step towards mitigating the risks of inadvertent conflict and misunderstandings, which have been dangerously high in the recent past.
During the period of non-communication, the U.S. accused China’s forces of engaging in hazardous intercepts of American and allied planes and ships. These incidents underscored the perils of a lack of direct dialogue, where each action, unfiltered by diplomatic or military channels, could be misinterpreted, potentially leading to escalatory responses. In the words of U.S. Ambassador to Beijing Nicholas Burns, “You don’t want a situation in the event of a mistake or an accident where the two militaries can’t intervene at a senior level to defuse the situation and separate whoever has collided.” His statement at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York encapsulates the critical need for high-level military communication in preventing crises.
The recent videoconference between Air Force Gen. CQ Brown Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liu Zhenli of the People’s Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department, was a concrete step in re-establishing this vital line of communication. The Pentagon, while discreet about the specifics of the call, indicated that the generals discussed a range of issues, including global and regional security. The significance of this interaction cannot be overstated, especially considering the backdrop of escalating tensions and the comprehensive nature of the issues at stake.
The dialogue’s resumption comes after President Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s agreement to resume military contacts at a summit meeting outside San Francisco. This meeting was instrumental in moderating the contentious tone that had characterized U.S.-China relations. In terms of concrete outcomes, Beijing has moved against some illicit traders in chemicals used to make fentanyl, a move seen as a follow-up to another agreement between Biden and Xi.
However, the road to a stable and constructive U.S.-China military relationship remains fraught with challenges. The strains over conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine, issues in the South China Sea, and the delicate situation surrounding Taiwan, present ongoing tests to this newly rekindled dialogue. Beijing’s wariness of next month’s presidential election in Taiwan and the U.S.’s admonitions against China’s actions in the South China Sea exemplify the complex geopolitical landscape in which this dialogue is situated.
Historically, the U.S.-China military relationship has seen its share of ups and downs. China has often chosen to cut off dialogue during times of tension, a tactic that has frequently frustrated U.S. attempts to maintain open channels for crisis management. This pattern was evident when Beijing ceased various dialogues in response to then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022.
The Pentagon has previously accused China’s military of a pattern of dangerous and provocative actions in the East and South China seas, designed to elevate risks for U.S. forces. A Pentagon report documented over 180 instances of what it termed “coercive and risky air intercepts” targeting U.S. military aircraft in the region between the fall of 2021 and 2023. These incidents highlight the necessity of clear and ongoing communication to mitigate risks and misunderstandings.
Looking ahead, the Pentagon is discussing with the Chinese side the re-establishment of a “deconfliction line,” primarily to mitigate mishaps between Chinese and American aircraft and ships in Asia. Plans are also underway for bilateral defense policy coordination talks and consultations on military and maritime issues. These initiatives, part of the broader framework agreed upon by Presidents Biden and Xi, are indicative of a concerted effort to build a more stable and predictable framework for U.S.-China military relations.
The resumption of U.S.-China military communications is a vital development in international diplomacy and security. It represents a shared understanding of the risks inherent in the absence of direct dialogue and a mutual commitment to managing this complex and critical relationship.
China will likely continue to be belligerent in taking risks but having no communications means that real hostilities are more likely. But one must ask the question: Can China use this to their advantage beyond reducing risks? It may be there is a sucker play to be made when China finally decides to raise the stakes and invade Taiwan.
And Biden is clueless…