Can a US-China military hotline stop the downward spiral?

New communications channels between the superpowers are a hopeful sign

US President Joe Biden, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia on Nov. 14, 2022.
US President Joe Biden, right, and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands before their meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit meeting in Nusa Dua, in Bali, Indonesia on Nov. 14, 2022.

Can a US-China military hotline stop the downward spiral?

It may not be full-on détente, but China and the United States are entering a new, tentatively positive diplomatic moment. New channels of communication appear to be stabilising a mutual downward spiral between the two superpowers that threatened to propel them inevitably toward conflict.

The latest channel to reopen is likely to come next month when US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin is set to meet his Chinese counterpart, Dong Jun, for the first time at the IISS Shangri La Dialogue in Singapore. US-Chinese preparatory discussions for the meeting have been taking place over recent weeks, even as relations remain strained.

Perhaps more significant is the prospect of another new communications channel, namely between the heads of the US Indo-Pacific Command (INDOPACOM) and China’s Eastern Theater Command. Were Beijing and Washington to fight a war over Taiwan, these two figures would lead military operations for each respective side. A military-to-military meeting between the two is unlikely to produce diplomatic breakthroughs. But the fact that it could happen at all is a welcome development—and, given recent years of frosty silence, a somewhat surprising one.

In recent years, the Singapore conference has turned into a temperature gauge for Sino-US competition, much like the Munich Security Conference measures the pulse of Western relations with Russia. The last two Shangri La Dialogues took place against a backdrop of rapidly worsening Sino-US ties, driven by incidents like the balloon farrago in early 2022.

Defence ministers from China and the United States did not even meet one-on-one in 2023, making do with a perfunctory handshake at dinner. This year, the mood music will be different: Sino-US relations have improved over the last 12 months, albeit from a perilously low base, so that the two ministers are likely to avoid using their speeches as bully pulpits to escalate tensions. (Disclosure: Until last year, I led the team in Singapore that organises the event.)

Instead, this year’s focus in Singapore will be on Southeast Asia, given the recent clashes at the Second Thomas Shoal in the South China Sea. Here, China’s coast guard has deployed water cannons against Philippines vessels seeking to supply the Sierra Madre, a World War II-era landing ship that Manila ran aground on the reef more than two decades ago.

A confrontation between two Chinese and Philippine Coast Guard vessels in the South China Sea on July 5.

The reef itself lies within the Philippines’ recognised exclusive economic zone but is also inside China’s expansive “nine-dash line” claims over much of the region. Filipino President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who will speak at the conference, is clearly annoyed at China’s actions. But he is irked by his neighbours in Southeast Asia, too. Some of these also face Chinese incursions but are much too cowed by China to offer Manila support.

Behind the scenes, however, attention will focus on developing military dynamics between the United States and China—and on the possible new military channel in particular. The idea of a direct link between INDOPACOM and the People’s Liberation Army has long been in the works. At their November 2023 meeting in Woodside, California, US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed that a link should be established. US Navy Admiral John Aquilino, who recently stepped down as INDOPACOM head, then tried repeatedly to set it up. Much to his evident frustration, China’s military never replied to his requests.

That may now change. Aquilino’s successor, US Navy Admiral Samuel Paparo, took over last month. The arrival of a new commander, in combination with the upcoming defence ministers’ meeting in Singapore, should create space for high-level military-to-military dialogue to begin. It isn’t yet clear what format this dialogue would take and even who the Chinese interlocutor would be.

This month, US Assistant Secretary of Defence Ely Ratner spoke to his counterpart, Major General Li Bin, in the Chinese Central Military Commission. According to the US readout of the conversation, Ratner suggested that China’s Southern and Eastern theatre commanders both be included in regular calls. But if there is to be only one channel, the United States hopes it will be with China’s Eastern theatre commander, who leads its military in the crucial areas around Taiwan, rather than its Southern theatre command, which focuses on the South China Sea.

Over recent years, communication between the US and Chinese militaries has been meagre to nonexistent. Aquilino did speak to Chinese officials at a meeting in Fiji in 2023. There was also a low-level meeting in early April when Chinese military representatives travelled to Hawaii to meet counterparts from INDOPACOM for what is known as the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement working group, a technical discussion group on operational safety. A second such meeting in China is now likely. But there has been little high-level communication—and none whatsoever between the most important US and Chinese military commanders in the region.

Over recent years, communication between the US and Chinese militaries has been meagre to nonexistent.

A new military channel would be significant in the bigger picture, too, as part of a wider range of improved communication between Beijing and Washington. The most important channel is still between Biden and Xi. In March, the two held a two-hour video call, which followed up on their cordial in-person meeting in California.

These top-level meetings, in turn, have created space for other cabinet-level channels. The most important is between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. But there are others, too, for instance, involving the country's respective treasury and commerce departments.

There are, of course, good reasons to be sceptical of what a new military-to-military channel can achieve. So-called hotlines between militaries sound good on paper but often fail to deliver much in practice.

Take just one recent example: In 2023, Marcos and Xi agreed to set up just such a hotline to manage tensions in the South China Sea. If such a thing even exists, neither side has used it so far. In March, shortly after another maritime escalation by China, Marcos was asked in an interview if some kind of personal line with Xi had been set up. "Not yet, I'm afraid," he said.

There are deeper structural challenges to overcome. The US military is relatively decentralised, giving commanders like Paparo authority to make decisions. The Chinese military is much more centralised, and important decisions are taken in Beijing. Communications between the two sides, therefore, often end up at cross purposes.

Put simply, the United States wants to use bilateral forums to discuss and resolve substantive issues. China often views them more as a mechanism to complain about US behaviour. A senior retired Chinese military officer spoke with me during a recent trip to China. "The Americans can have their meeting and make their points," the official explained while asking not to give their name. "But our system is not like their system. All our guy can say is: 'Thank you. I will convey your concerns to Beijing.'"

Speaker of the U.S. House Of Representatives Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) poses for photographs with Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen at the president's office on August 03, 2022, in Taipei, Taiwan.

There is then the added problem that China often theatrically cancels such channels to signal diplomatic displeasure, as it did after US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in 2022. Viewed cynically, it is conceivable that China might even have an interest in setting up a military channel precisely because threatening to cancel provides Beijing with leverage when it is unhappy with Washington.

What's more, the perverse reality is that emergency hotlines between the two superpowers are least likely to function when they are most needed—during an actual crisis—precisely because of China's tendency to shut them down when relations deteriorate.

All that said, it is important not to be too pessimistic. Yes, diplomacy and dialogue are no panaceas, and any new military channel would face significant issues. But the lesson of last year is that they can help stabilise relations, too.

At the very least, a functioning military channel should help to avoid mistakes and misunderstandings, given that the US and Chinese militaries work with imperfect information. "It will let us say: 'This is what we are seeing. This is how this is looking to us,'" a senior officer at INDOPACOM explained to me on the condition of anonymity earlier this month. "And then we can ask: 'Is that really the message you want to send to us?'"

At last year's Shangri La Dialogue, Austin implicitly criticised China for refusing to participate in direct talks. "For responsible defence leaders, the right time to talk is anytime," he said. "And the right time to talk is now."

It looks like Austin will get his wish, as China seems ready to talk once again. One should not be naïve about what such dialogue will achieve. The long-term outlook for US-China ties remains bleak. But as the world's two most powerful militaries rub up against one another ever more closely, some communication is definitely better than none at all.

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