President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced renewed military-to-military communications after a high-stakes meeting Wednesday, but experts in U.S. and Chinese military policy and security said that doesn’t mean defense relations have been fully restored.
China broke off military contact in retaliation for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022, and since then the U.S. military’s attempts at communicating with People’s Republic of China (PRC) leaders met with a wall of silence more often than not, according to the Department of Defense (DOD) annual Chinese Military Power report released in October. While DOD leaders say Thursday’s announcement signals progress, there’s no guarantee the U.S. and China will be able to deescalate when crises erupt, experts told the DNCF.
“No definite plans have been revealed,” Miles Yu, director of the Hudson Institute’s China Center, explained, first because China currently lacks a defense minister, the equivalent to the U.S. secretary of defense.
First, high-level military to military interactions would resume, the White House announced Wednesday. However, such engagements will not actually resume until Xi names a defense minister to succeed Li Shangfu, who was ousted in October.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin would not meet with a Chinese defense official at an Indonesia forum of defense ministers because no one of the appropriate rank was attending, Bloomberg reported. Austin met Shangfu’s predecessor on the sidelines of the same 2022 gathering, known as the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus.
“As you know, we had been open to meeting with [Chinese leaders] here in Jakarta, but we’re encouraged by recent news from the White House on the planned resumption of military-to-military communications,” Austin said Thursday after touching down in Jakarta, according to a news release.
“You’ve heard me say before that there is no substitute for consistent and substantive dialogue between senior leaders,” he said. “So, we’ll continue to seek practical discussions with [the Chinese] from a senior leader level to the working level.”
China has spurned repeated attempts for engagement at various levels in recent years, the Pentagon has said. The People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) refusal to cooperate on defense and military talks raises the risk of an incident escalating into crisis or conflict, it warns.
The Pentagon has documented a sharp increase in “risky” moves Chinese planes have conducted near U.S. aircraft in the East and South China Sea regions since the fall of 2021 that could have resulted in accidents and miscalculation. Some endangered lives of both the U.S. and Chinese crew members.
As to whether the announcement of renewed communications would play a role in managing such incidents, Yu was hesitant.
“I don’t know yet. The CCP is extremely averse to mil-to-mil communications at the operational level,” he said.
In addition, renewed lines of communication do not mean China will cease behavior intended to be provocative, experts said.
“Open channels of military communication are necessary but will not dissuade China to eschew reckless maneuvers as part of its peacetime confrontation operations,” Patrick Cronin, Asia-Pacific security chair at the Hudson Institute, told the DCNF.
U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks — an annual policy discussion conducted at the deputy assistant secretary level — and the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meeting — an operational safety dialogue involving U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) and PLA naval and air forces — will also resume, the White House said. China had suspended the two arrangements as a “countermeasure” to Pelosi’s Taiwan trip.
Telephone conversations (DTL) between theater commanders are also expected to resume, the White House said.
In 2022 and 2023, the PLA refused separate requests from Austin and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to conduct DTL calls with their counterparts, the Pentagon’s China report stated. China also ignored calls from the INDOPACOM commander to speak with commanders of the PLA’s Southern, Northern and Eastern Theater Commands.
“China will answer the phone if the PLA leadership is authorized by the CCP, but changing PLA operations is not what Xi Jinping has in mind when he says the planet is big enough for both powers,” Cronin told the DCNF.
The fate of other official talks remains unknown. None took place in 2022, and some, like the Asia-Pacific Security Dialogue, had broken off prior to 2022. The White House statement did not address whether Communications Working Group (CCWG) meetings would resume.
And, if a crisis did erupt and a U.S. official rang up a PLA counterpart in an emergency, history has provided little reason to trust that the Chinese officer or defense official will respond, Yu said.
“The chances for that is likely to be zero. They refused to pick up the phone in the 1999 accidental bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade, and in the 2001 EP 3 plane crash incident. There is no reason to believe otherwise going forward,” Yu said.
Micaela Burrow on November 16, 2023