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The Imperative for Increasing U.S- Sino Defense Communication

Jul 11, 2023

There are many issues that the U.S. and China do not see eye-to-eye on, ranging from development assistance and determining culpability for the fentanyl crisis, to cooperation on climate change. However, one issue of contention that has the potential to lead to immediate dire consequences is the lack of communication among high-level defense officials from both countries. Over the past few years, we have witnessed multiple near misses and narrowly averted potential disasters that could have sparked a dangerous escalation in the region. The U.S. and China must work to overlook perceived grievances and reinvigorate communication channels to ensure no singular incident would spiral out of control and lead to a more significant conflict. Moreover, the possibility for either side to miscalculate could result in severe consequences. 

The most recent incident that stirred up tensions was a near collision in the Taiwan Strait. On June 3rd, a Chinese navy vessel performed an unsafe maneuver. The incident occurred while the American destroyer USS Chung-Hoon and Canadian frigate HMCS Montreal were conducting a freedom of navigation transit through the strait. The Chinese missile destroyer came within 150 yards of the United States’ vessel. U.S. Indo-Pacific command stated that the maneuver violated maritime rules of safe passage in international waters. The Chinese argue that had a Chinese vessel traveled so close to U.S. territory, it would have sparked outrage amongst the U.S. public, hence a double standard. 

This is not the first time the two sides have confronted each other in the Taiwan Strait. This hostile environment in the region is an enduring point of contention between the two countries, as highlighted when PLA officials stated they tracked andwarned away a U.S. warship that illegally entered the South China Sea in late March.

Moreover, these incidents are not limited to warships alone. Fighter jets are also involved in these types of hazardous situations. In late December 2022, a Chinese military plane came within 10 feet of a U.S. air force aircraft while flying over the South China Sea. The RC-135 aircraft was forced to take evasive maneuvers to avoid colliding with the Chinese J-11 fighter jet. More recently, on May 30, USINDOPACOM released a statement that “a Chinese J-16 fighter jet performed an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver during the intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 aircraft.” 

These dangerous incidents have become more common as of late and underscore that greater communication between the security and defense departments of both sides is necessary. Over the past year, officials from both nations had the chance to convene,  but due to perceived animosity, both countries called off the meetings. In February of 2023, Secretary Blinken abruptly canceled his trip to China because of the Chinese “spy balloon incident.” Subsequently, the Chinese side refused the offer when presented with an opportunity for Chinese and American defense officials to meet at the Shangri-la Dialogue—Asia’s largest security summit. Moreover, at the summit, both sides pushed competing visions of Asia’s security future. Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, currently under sanction from the U.S., used his platform to criticize the United States. He stated, “China believes that a major country should behave like one. Instead of provoking block confrontation for self-interests, it should bear in mind the interests of all, resolve differences through exchanges and cooperation and meet the aspirations of countries in the world.”

It is notable that communication between U.S. and Chinese leadership has not remained as stagnant amongst officials in other departments. In early June, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Daniel Kritenbrink and NSC Senior Director for China and Taiwan Affairs Sarah Beran traveled to Beijing to build on efforts to “maintain open lines of communication and build on recent high-level diplomacy between the two countries.” Additionally, various high-level Chinese and U.S. officials have met this past year. This includes Secretary of Commerce Raimondo and Commerce Minister Weng Wentao, CIA director Bill Burns who traveled to China in May, and national security advisor Jake Sullivan who held talks with Wang Yi for two days in Vienna.

Nevertheless, despite these high-level meetings, the relationship between defense officials from both countries has not improved.  While engagement persists among specific high-ranking officials across different departments, maintaining defense ties remains paramount in preventing the escalation toward unintended conflicts. Alarmingly, there are currently over 100 dormant communication channels, heightening the risk that an incident could rapidly spiral out of control.

Twenty years ago, on April 1, 2001, United States Navy EP-3 aircraft collided with a People’s Liberation Army Navy J-8 fighter, resulting in the Chinese pilot’s death. The incident led to a particularly tense period in U.S.-China relations. The two countries were able to repair relations after four months of negotiation. If something similar were to happen today with the current lack of direct military-to-military communication, it has the potential to have catastrophic consequences. 

By and large, there are officials on both sides who do not want the relationship to devolve into conflict, and the business community also shares this sentiment. As Principal Deputy Spokesperson Vedant Patel stated, “President Biden has been clear. We don’t seek any kind of new cold war, and our competition must not spill over into conflict.” Both nations must work to collaborate to revive and enhance communication channels. U.S. officials must persuade their Chinese counterparts of the imperative nature of engaging in high-level defense discussions, despite Beijing’s complaints regarding specific U.S. actions—such as China’s objections to ongoing U.S. military deployments in the Indo-Pacific region. Secretary Blinken’s trip to China also signified the two countries’ desire to stabilize relations. While there, he worked to restart military-to-military communications in efforts to put the two countries back on the path toward more constructive engagement. Unfortunately, Secretary Blinken stated that at this time, “China has not agreed to move forward” with restoring military-to-military ties. Ensuring that Chinese officials are persuaded to revive military communications is crucial, and accomplishing this task will be a priority for Washington going forward.   

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