After more than three years without formal, high-level strategic dialogues, Washington and Beijing are beginning to talk again. Senior U.S. and Chinese foreign policy officials met in Alaska in March 2021, climate policy representatives met in Shanghai in April, trade and economic policy representatives have spoken by phone on multiple occasions throughout the summer, and deputy-level diplomats concluded their first meeting in the Chinese city of Tianjin last month. The White House has stressed that it is not pursuing dialogue with Beijing for its own sake, but rather to “set terms for responsible management of the U.S.-China relationship.” Yet, despite this progress, Beijing so far has appeared reluctant to reopen the one form of dialogue perhaps most conducive to managing a military incident: crisis communication channels.
As tensions between the two countries grow and as military exercises in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea become more frequent, there is a pressing need to establish more robust and effective crisis communication channels. Without mechanisms in place to defuse a potential crisis, the United States and China are at greater risk of having an inadvertent military collision or unsafe incident escalate into a full-scale conflict.
How have U.S.-China military dialogues and crisis communications declined in recent years?
In years past, the U.S. and Chinese militaries engaged in dozens of recurrent, high-level exchanges to promote transparency and reduce distrust. In addition to frequent communication, the two militaries conducted regular joint exercises focused on humanitarian assistance and disaster relief. Given the overall deterioration in bilateral relations, it is no surprise that U.S.-China military exchanges have shifted their focus from joint efforts to address humanitarian crises and disasters to instead emphasize deescalating crises and avoiding conflict. At the same time, the number of annual military exchanges between the two countries declined from a peak of forty-one in 2014 to less than twenty per year under former president Donald Trump (see figure 1). Most recently, the recurrent, high-level Security and Diplomatic Dialogue, established in 2017, was abandoned by the Trump administration in 2019.
On-again, off-again military ties are nothing new for U.S.-China relations. What is new, however, is the rise in bilateral distrust coupled with an overall increase in U.S. and Chinese military operations in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. Amid this worrying backdrop, public records show that U.S. and Chinese defense officials have not met to discuss crisis management in more than nine months; in the meantime, the risk of a military conflict has only grown more acute. Even if the two countries can reopen previously established mechanisms—like the 1998 Maritime Military Consultative Agreement and the 2014 Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea—the relationship would still lack ways to reduce uncertainty in newer strategic domains, such as outer space or cyberspace.
What is hindering the two sides from resuming military contacts?
In May 2021, reports emerged that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has tried and failed—three times—to organize high-level military talks with General Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. This was surprising, given that one of Austin’s predecessors, former secretary of defense James Mattis, met with Xu just three years ago. Chinese media outlets allege that Austin “disregard[ed] diplomatic protocol” by not requesting a meeting with his civilian counterpart, Chinese Minister of Defense Wei Fenghe.
These reports add to a long list of failed attempts to renew U.S.-China military talks. The silence between U.S. and Chinese military counterparts is perplexing in light of the two sides’ ability to resolve protocol disputes in other instances, most recently in the run-up to the Sherman-Xie meeting in Tianjin. It appears that bilateral tensions are impeding the resumption of military communication channels even as growing distrust warrants more robust and effective crisis management.
Unfortunately, military contacts often bear the brunt of broader tensions in U.S.-China relations. Chinese officials, in particular, have a history of suspending crisis communication channels, most notably as they did after the NATO bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1990, during the 1995–1996 Taiwan Strait crisis, and following the 2001 EP-3 spy plane incident. The two sides should resist the temptation to keep crisis communications frozen, especially at the precise moment when these channels are most necessary.
How do the views of Chinese and U.S. scholars and policymakers on military-to-military dialogues compare?
At the official level, the Pentagon continues to stress the importance of resuming bilateral military exchanges with Chinese officials. In Singapore last month, Austin stated that he is “committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China—including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.” Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, similarly has insisted that Chinese leaders “rethink their previous ambivalence” regarding crisis management. Washington’s inclination to reopen crisis communication channels with Beijing speaks to the broader effort by President Joe Biden’s administration to pursue dialogue when it is “practical, substantive, and direct.”
Beijing, for its part, repeatedly has called on the United States to “restart dialogue, return bilateral relations to the right track, and rebuild mutual trust.” When it comes to bilateral military relations, however, Beijing appears less enthusiastic about resuming communication. After reports surfaced about Austin’s recent overtures to Xu, Beijing accused the United States of hypocrisy. Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson, Tan Kefei, argued that Washington “should not claim that it wants to set up a hotline while it keeps boosting its military presence in the Asia-Pacific.”
In academic debates, the dividing lines between Washington and Beijing are less stark. Scholars on both sides of the Pacific debate the importance and effectiveness of military communication, especially amid broader changes in U.S.-China relations. Recent conversations with Chinese experts reveal two different strands of thought on U.S.-China crisis management mechanisms.1
On the one hand, some scholars see the value of U.S.-China military exchanges. The former head of the Institute of Strategic Studies at the National Defense University, Yang Yi, recently argued that Beijing and Washington should resume high-level military exchanges to “enhance trust and dispel doubts between the two armies.” That said, some scholars worry that previous dialogue mechanisms may prove insufficient to manage the current challenges on hand. Even before the recent breakdown in bilateral communication, one Chinese scholar suggested that the “confidence-building measures that exist today between China and the United States are rudimentary compared to those between the Soviet Union and the United States during the Cold War.”
On the other hand, some Chinese scholars view U.S.-Chinese military exchanges in an increasingly negative light. As Beijing grows more disaffected with the U.S. military presence in the Western Pacific, some scholars have come to see operational dialogues as unwelcome endorsements of U.S. military operations. At the same time, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has prioritized regional deterrence activities, so bilateral military contact—to the extent that it reduces uncertainty—is viewed by some as counterproductive to the PLA’s strategic objectives. The prioritization of deterrence over dialogue has only become more pronounced as PLA generals and Chinese scholars grow more confident in the ability of China’s advanced ballistic missiles to eliminate U.S. ships and aircraft in the event of a conflict near Chinese territory.
U.S. scholars have similar debates about the effectiveness of crisis communication channels, albeit on different terms than their Chinese counterparts. Some U.S. analysts suggest that military-to-military contacts played an important role in preempting escalation during the Cold War and, therefore, should also play a role amid growing competition between the United States and China. Conversely, other scholars refer to past cases when crisis communication mechanisms went unused, suggesting that efforts to establish crisis management mechanisms could ultimately prove ineffective.
Why is maintaining U.S.-China military contacts important?
If history is any guide, it is true that crisis communication mechanisms do not always serve their intended purpose in crises. During the EP-3 spy plane incident, tensions were ultimately defused by direct executive-level intervention, not working-level crisis communication channels. Indeed, a key issue with U.S.-China crisis communication channels is that the officials on the two ends of the line do not always have the authority to negotiate on behalf of their governments.
On the other hand, history is not always the best predictor of the future. Just because crisis communication channels have not worked at times in the past does not mean they will never be effective in the future. Only referring to cases when such channels have broken down disregards the many instances when incidents have been successfully deescalated and, as a result, have been kept out of the headlines. When I was serving on the National Security Council in 2009, the USNS Impeccable was harassed by Chinese fishing vessels, and direct dialogue with the Chinese military helped resolve the incident. At least until 2019, the U.S. and Chinese militaries met regularly to review unsafe incidents under an agreed-upon framework enshrined in a memorandum of understanding.
The question of whether crisis communication channels are the be-all and end-all of conflict prevention is, ultimately, beside the point. The more fundamental issue is one of principle. If Beijing and Washington are earnest about averting crises, it would be wise to consider reopening the one form of communication perhaps most conducive to conflict prevention: military-to-military exchanges. While the precise mechanisms necessary to prevent a conflict are up for debate, most would agree that some attempt to manage risk and uncertainty is preferable to none.
Military exchanges are no panacea for the myriad issues riddling U.S.-China relations. If implemented correctly, however, they can at least reduce the likelihood that unsafe incidents or encounters escalate into broader crises. As Beijing and Washington begin to resume bilateral contact, the two sides would be well-served to reestablish guardrails so as to prevent what could undoubtedly become a devastating military confrontation.
The author is grateful for research assistance provided by Nathaniel Sher.
1 Some of these insights are based on the author’s conversations with multiple Chinese security experts in May and June 2021.