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U.S.-China Mil-Mil Dialogue: Meeting Halfway Across the World

Jun 14, 2024
  • Yun Sun

    Director of the China Program and Co-director of the East Asia Program, Stimson Center

Shangri-La Dialogue Dong Jun Austin.png

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin meets with Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun at the Shangri-La Security Conference in Singapore, May 31, 2024. (Photo: U.S. Department of Defense)

While the media has entirely focused on how the Shangri-La Dialogue in early June was another round of tug of war between U.S. and China, people don’t appreciate enough the significance of the 75-minute side meeting between Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun and U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin. The U.S. and China came halfway across the world to discuss their military-military relations, offering a glimmer of hope for the future.

Military-to-military (mil-mil) dialogues stand out as the paramount issue in U.S.-China relations. As the two great powers engage in strategic competition, mil-mil communications are regarded as the last line of defense against war, especially an inadvertent war or accidental escalation of tension in the military field. This is particularly true as the two militaries operate in close proximity in contentious waters and domains in the West Pacific, such as the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. Throughout the years, these dialogues have been disrupted and suspended for a variety of reasons, but primarily due to Chinese concerns over U.S. interactions with Taiwan.

Such was the case in the aftermath of Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. Following her visit, China swiftly announced the cancellation of communications between the theater commanders of the two countries, as well as the cancellation of the Defense Policy Coordination Talks and of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings. For the following sixteen months, the two militaries had minimal direct communications other than through the routine, regular channels such as the defense attachés.

During this period, tensions escalated in the West Pacific, leading to some of the most intense interactions between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. By the summer of 2023, the “unsafe, unprofessional actions” of the Chinese navy and air force had emerged as the most dangerous flashpoints with the full potential for escalation. The threat was so severe that the resumption of mil-mil dialogues with China became a top priority of the Biden Administration for much of the year.

However, over the last six months, many of the mil-mil dialogue channels have now been resuscitated, largely due to the following activities:

- December 21, 2023: Teleconference between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General CQ Brown Jr. and PLA Chief of Joint Staff Department General Liu Zhenli.

- January 8-9, 2024: Resumption of the Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) in Washington DC between Michael Chase, DASD and Major General Song Yanchao, Deputy Director of CMC Office for International Military Cooperation.

- April 3-4, 2024: Resumption of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) working group meeting in Hawaii at the level of senior colonel.

- April 16, 2024: Virtual meeting between Secretary of Defense Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun.

- May 31, 2024: Meeting between Secretary of Defense Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun.

For those who don’t realize the significance of these meetings, they should be reminded that merely six months ago, the two militaries almost had no meaningful direct communications, but a series of dangerous encounters in the air and at sea that were extremely close to creating another EP-3 incident. According to senior U.S. government officials, the risk of a military escalation between the U.S. and China was higher than 50% within 6-12 months by the fall of 2023.

However, within merely six months, the two militaries have resumed the key channels of the mil-mil dialogue. The meeting in Singapore between the two defense chiefs practically announced the renormalization of U.S.-China mil-mil relations.

The most fundamental reason for the resumption of mil-mil ties was the two countries’, especially the two leaders’, desire to seek the stabilization of bilateral relations in what has proven to be a difficult year for both. Regardless of media sensations, bilateral relations have largely followed the consensus from the Woodside Summit last November between President Xi Jinping and President Biden.

The Biden Administration is currently facing a challenging reelection campaign amidst distractions from ongoing wars in Ukraine and the Middle East. With this, the U.S. can not afford to entertain or engage in military conflict with China, the second largest power in the world. Great power competition is still prevalent, but managing tensions to avoid a war is imperative for Washington. Similarly, China seeks to stabilize relations with the U.S. in order to focus on other priorities. In fact, some would argue that China has hoped to stabilize relations with the U.S. since the inauguration of President Biden in 2021, but achieving this has proved elusive.

While China-U.S. military leaders have essentially come halfway across the world in efforts to meet each other halfway, the picture is far from rosy. The U.S.-China relationship is being stabilized, but it remains fundamentally unstable. The structural conflict between the status quo U.S. and the rising China is still present, and only stands to escalate in the years to come in the eyes of many strategists.

On the technical level, for the U.S., the most serious and immediate issue that needs to be addressed is the direct bilateral communication between the Commander of the Indo-Pacific Command- now Admiral Paparo, and his counterparts at the Eastern Theater Command and the Southern Theater Command, as agreed by Biden and Xi at the Woodside Summit. That meeting has yet to happen though it’s been seven months since Woodside. The U.S. side will not consider the agreement between the two leaders fulfilled until that communication occurs.

Furthermore, on the strategic level, the resumption of the meeting does not equate to the reaching of agreements. As seen from the Austin-Dong meeting in Singapore, the two countries, hence the two militaries, have fundamental differences regarding their positions and policies on Taiwan, the South China Sea, as well as a long list of security issues. On military activities, the U.S. and China fundamentally differ with each other on the source of tension, and the U.S.’ priority of crisis management versus the Chinese focus on crisis prevention. Washington believes in its right to operate in China’s periphery as long as those operations are within the boundaries of international law. Therefore, the U.S. approach is based on the mentality of crisis management when encounters or escalations happen. This has made the mil-mil communications particularly vital because only with open, unhindered communication channels could the crisis be managed.

China’s approach, in contrast, is one of “crisis prevention.” Since the encounters have all taken place in China’s periphery, China’s preference is for the U.S. to reduce its level of military activities and withdraw its military presence further from the Chinese coastline. In this line of logic, the best way to manage a crisis is to prevent it from happening in the first place.

The U.S. counterargument is a legalist one – that Washington is not violating any law by operating in areas including the Taiwan Strait and will continue to exercise its right, such as the freedom of navigation operations. This continued disagreement has previously pushed the U.S. into action to assert such rights, and pushed China to dial up its operational tempo to drive the U.S. further away, a cycle that could very possibly repeat itself in the future.

Despite the defense chiefs’ meeting, neither side bears the illusion that the fundamental source of tension is resolved by the resumption of mil-mil dialogues. The struggle between the U.S. and China in the military domain continues and could potentially blow out of control when the next Taiwan Strait crisis inevitably happens. And given the current climate of Taiwanese domestic politics and the uncertainty associated with the upcoming U.S. election, the next crisis could be just around the corner.

But the experience of the past six months does underscore one thing: despite the strongest geopolitical instinct in a great power competition, dialogues to manage military tensions are still possible when political will is present and cooler heads prevail. For skeptics and cynics who believe that U.S.-China relations are nothing but doomed and the two militaries are fundamentally on a collision course, they should be reminded that the prevention of war as a lowest common denominator is still a worthy cause – perhaps the most worthy of all. That aspiration alone should drive the two militaries, as well as all of us, to work toward peace despite the inclination to prepare for war. 

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