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Updated May 29, 2024, 3:03pm EDT
security

US set to discuss a new military communications channel with Beijing

US Defense Sec. Lloyd Austin watches Adm. Samuel Paparo and retiring Adm. John Aquilino shake hands during the Indo-Pacific Command change of command ceremony. Marco Garcia/AFP via Getty Images
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The News

The US and China will discuss potentially opening up another military communication channel between their respective top commanders responsible for the area around Taiwan when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets his Chinese counterpart, Dong Jun, later this week.

The possibility of creating a dialogue between the US Indo-Pacific Command and China’s Eastern Theater Command “will be an item of discussion in our meeting this week,” Pentagon spokesman Martin Meiners told Semafor. He said the department “will continue to engage in active discussions with [People’s Republic of China] counterparts about future engagements between defense and military officials at multiple levels.”

A new channel (the prospect of which was raised by a columnist in Foreign Policy earlier this week) would be the latest in a series of moves by Washington and Beijing to increase dialogue between their two militaries amid rising regional tensions. Indeed, Austin’s in-person meeting with Dong on the sidelines of the Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore will be his first.

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The US has raised concerns about China’s increasingly assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas, as well as its aggression toward Taiwan and clashes with the Philippines. Just last week, the Chinese military conducted large-scale drills around Taiwan following the inauguration of the self-governing island’s new president, Lai Ching-te.

A spokesperson for the Chinese embassy in Washington did not explicitly answer whether China wants the new dialogue but noted to Semafor that US President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping agreed in November 2023 to conduct “telephone conversations between theater commanders on the basis of equality and respect.”

“Recently, China and the United States have carried out a series of military exchanges,” embassy spokesperson Liu Pengyu told Semafor. “China is willing to continue to work with the United States to implement relevant consensus.”

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Lyle Morris, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, told Semafor that creating the channel would be a “positive move,” but that its overall impact was likely to be minimal.

“[Hotlines] are very limited in utility and value because of how the PRC approaches crisis communications,” Morris said. Whoever is “picking up the phone on the [People’s Liberation Army] side is going to be very limited in what they can say in real time. Every single thing that is said by the PLA, at any level, has to be vetted, approved, and run up the chain in Beijing.”

“If this hotline achieves nothing but the ability for the [Indo-Pacific] commander to pick up the phone during a crisis and say, ‘I am seeing situation X, we are preparing to do Y, will you confirm receipt?’ And if the PLA says ‘copy, confirm receipt,’ that’s a win for us,” Morris added.

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Kurt Campbell, now the No. 2 State Department official, told The Guardian in 2021 that China has generally resisted meaningful military communication. “In the past, the hotlines that have been set up have just rung, kind of endlessly in empty rooms,” he said.

Even so, Roy Kamphausen, the president of the National Bureau of Asian Research, told Semafor that a new military channel could have other benefits for the US. “Participating in mil-mil can play a reassuring role with allies,” and the Department of Defense has long believed direct communication can help deter adversaries, he said in an email.

The proposal came up in a call earlier this year during which the Pentagon’s Ely Ratner pushed his Chinese counterpart for a dialogue between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander and the heads of China’s Eastern and Southern Theater Commands.

Morris told Semafor that a communication line with China’s Eastern Theater command would allow the new Indo-Pacific commander, Adm. Samuel Paparo, to establish a rapport with the Chinese commander responsible for China’s armed forces near the Taiwan strait. “Primarily, it’s for Taiwan. Because there’s such high-tempo operations on both sides around Taiwan that the potential for an accident or crisis to develop is quite high.”

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Step Back

The increased dialogue between US and Chinese military officials comes despite heightened friction between Washington and Beijing over technology controls, tariffs, and US warnings about China’s “overcapacity.” China suspended high-level military communications with the US following then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan in 2022. Biden and Xi agreed to reopen these channels at a summit in San Francisco last November, in addition to pursuing cooperation on countering fentanyl and talks on artificial intelligence safety. Since then, a number of Pentagon officials, including the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have spoken with their Chinese counterparts.

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