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Foreign Policy

Crisis Management and China-U.S. Mutual Trust

Apr 09 , 2015
  • Zhang Tuosheng

    Director of China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, Senior Adviser at Pangoal Institution

The rise of geopolitical friction between China and the United States in recent years has increased the possibility of a military and security crisis between the two countries. Strengthening crisis management is a priority issue in China-U.S. relations.

What are the major existing and potential crises facing the two countries?

Crisis across the Taiwan Straits

There have been several cross-Straits crises in recent history, causing serious impediments to China-U.S. relations. Since the Kuomintang took over office in Taiwan in 2008, the cross-Straits situation has eased remarkably. Variables, however, still exist in the political arena there and neither China nor the U.S. has ceased their preparations for possible military encounters. The U.S. navy and air force tactics in the region are mainly designed to counter China’s growing anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) capabilities. If the pro-independence Democratic Progressive Party makes a comeback in 2016, China-U.S. relations may once again face the serious challenge of cross-Straits crisis.

Crisis on the Korean Peninsula

If we regard cross-Straits crisis as the most dangerous potential crisis for China and the U.S., then the crisis on the Korean Peninsula can be seen as the gravest realistic crisis. To date, the Korean Peninsula has remained in a state of war. Constant flaring of nuclear crisis, tensions between South Korea and North Korea and the strained relations between North Korea and the U.S. have combined to hike the risk of military conflict on the Peninsula. Historically, China and the U.S. were once engaged in a regional war there; and at present, the two countries have both common and divergent interests on the Peninsula. How to effectively cope with various emergencies on the Peninsula and avoid another war is a harsh test to both countries.

Crisis in the East China Sea

Over the past two years, mounting disputes over territory and maritime rights and interests have given rise to military confrontation between China and Japan in the East China Sea. Considering the shifts in the balance of power, mutual dislike of their people and worsening political relations, maritime emergencies involving the two countries are likely to turn into military conflict. And the U.S., as a military ally of Japan, faces a higher risk of getting embroiled in a military crisis between China and Japan. Since the latter half of 2014, China-Japan relations have somewhat improved but are yet to return to normal. Though none of the three countries want to see military conflict in the region, a crisis among major powers that gets out of control will no doubt cause devastating consequences and must always be treated with high precaution.

China-US Maritime Conflict and Crisis in the South China Sea

In recent years, the U.S. off-shore military surveillance against China has been a main source of friction between the two countries. The air collision incident over the South China Sea in 2001 engendered a serious crisis between the two countries. Recent years have also seen a number of dangerous maritime encounters between the two countries. Usually, crises borne out of maritime emergencies are categorized as near-crises, which do not cause military conflict. When there is serious misjudgment or miscalculation, however, military conflict would be possible. Moreover, there is a growing tendency for the U.S. to meddle in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea, and the U.S. military intervention in the region is a sure way to trigger China-U.S. crisis.

Security crisis in outer space and cyberspace

The rapid growth of mutual apprehension and friction between China and the US in outer space and especially in cyberspace is breeding the risk of a new type of conflict between the two countries. China has some reservations over the new concept of “cross-domain threat” raised by the U.S., believing that the security threat in outer space and cyberspace should not be pegged with nuclear threat and nuclear deterrence. On the other hand, Chinese experts also recognize the growing risk of crisis between China and the U.S. in these two global commons, and the necessity for both countries to pay close attention to the issue.

In addition, China and the U.S. are faced with numerous other military and security crises, including the Ukraine crisis, the geopolitical crisis in the Middle East and North Africa, and terrorist crisis. Fortunately, these crises are more likely to advance security cooperation between the two countries than to drag them into military conflict.

The above analysis can be boiled down to two basic judgments: One, third-party factors are more likely to trigger China-U.S. crisis than bilateral factors; two, the two countries are faced with more potential crises than realistic ones.

Over the years, China and the U.S. have accumulated a host of important experience and lessons in dealing with crises. Valuable experience includes keeping strategic restraint, safeguarding the overall interests of bilateral relations, establishing necessary communication channels, sending clear messages to each other and correctly reading each other’s messages, avoiding commitment pitfalls and using military means cautiously. On the other hand, lack of understanding of each other’s decision making mechanism, underdevelopment of bilateral crisis management mechanisms, inadequacy in crisis prevention, insufficiency in communication channels in the early stages of crises, and interruption from the media are among the most serious lessons the two sides have learnt.

To strengthen crisis management, China and the U.S. need to make an effort in the following areas:

First, it is essential for the leaders of the two countries to nurture their sensitivity for joint crisis management and take crisis management as a strategic measure bolstering the overall interests of bilateral relations. If the leaders of both countries are determined to avoid conflict and confrontation and willing to observe the basic principles of crisis management, the two sides would overcome the obstacles caused by their diverging interests, successfully manage crisis, and effectively avoid military conflict and war.

Second, crisis management dialogue should become an integral part of diplomatic and defense dialogue between the two countries. If the dialogue on strategic stability is launched between the two countries, crisis management should be part of the agenda, and realistic crisis, potential crisis and crisis that may be caused by third-party factors should all be emphasized while crisis prevention and crisis management be given equal priority. Regarding some major crises that are very sensitive and concern third parties, the two sides may negotiate in advance the conditions for emergency consultation and once the conditions are met, the consultation can be kicked off without delay.

Third, the two countries need to further strengthen and improve their liaison mechanism for crisis management. Experience shows that a separate liaison mechanism dedicated to crisis management is highly necessary. Crisis management should be included in the portfolio of the head of state and defense ministry hot lines. As the next step, the two countries should also consider the establishment of navy and air force hot lines as well as those between the relevant war theaters of the two countries. Regular military exercises should be carried out by the crisis management communication mechanism to ensure its effectiveness in times of emergency.

Fourth, the two countries need to establish a joint working group for crisis management. Its main function should include collecting and sharing information, conducting consultation on contingency plans for crisis management, getting in touch immediately after an emergency and raising recommendations to decision makers. It is desirable that the working group is directly under the National Security Committee of China and the National Security Council of the US. Or for the time being, a 2+2 approach can be adopted that puts the group under the foreign ministries and defense ministries of the two countries.

Fifth, the two countries should deliver on the MOU on Notification of Major Military Activities Confidence-building Measures Mechanism and the MOU Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters that they signed at the end of 2014, and work to turn these documents into formal agreements. The two countries should also explore the possibility of formulating confidence-building measures and rules of behavior for nuclear weapons, outer space, cyberspace, anti-ballistic missiles and conventional strategic weapons. The two sides may proceed from easy issues before moving on to the more difficult ones or start with the most pressing issues before tackling other issues. The establishment of such confidence-building measures will come a long way to preventing and avoiding crises and reducing miscalculation and the risk of accidental conflict.

Sixth, the two countries should continue to expand the role of think tanks, and enhance research on crisis management. This should include advancing track one and a half and dual-track dialogues between the think tanks of the two countries, carrying out crisis scenario discussion and simulation, and exploring crisis management measures and contingency plans. The sensitive topics concerning crisis management may first be discussed in such dialogues.

All in all, under the current circumstances, crisis management between China and the US not just lays the groundwork for “effectively managing disputes” and keeping the bottom line of “no-conflict and no-confrontation”, it should also serve as a main tool for enhancing mutual trust, strengthening international cooperation and striving for mutual benefit. In the process of building a new model of major-country relations, it is an issue that deserves more attention from both government departments and institutes for strategic studies of the two countries.

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