Nearly nine months into the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, Washington’s relationship with Beijing has sunk to a historic low. After a high-level diplomatic meeting in March that devolved into an ugly exchange of insults, fruitless visits to China by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, and virtual climate talks that failed to produce clear deliverables, the world’s two great powers have reached a dangerous impasse.

By forming a new trilateral security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia, the United States has made it clear that it is serious about defending its allies in Asia and countering China’s territorial claims. But while the move has been hailed by some Western commentators as a stroke of strategic brilliance, it has also sharply increased military tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

During a phone call last month, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the “responsibility of both countries to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.” History suggests that open communication is the best way for the two great powers to uphold that responsibility, but Xi and Biden’s recent call was their first conversation in seven months. More alarming, neither U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin nor Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has yet met with his or her Chinese counterpart. Although the Pentagon’s first reported contact since Biden’s inauguration took place on August 27 and was followed by video conferences at the deputy assistant secretary level in September, no communication has occurred at the senior-most levels of military leadership.

As Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan have argued in these pages, the U.S.-Chinese rivalry is not a problem to be solved but a condition to be managed. If the Biden administration hopes to manage the competition and prevent it from turning into catastrophe, it must take urgent action to establish and maintain open channels of communication between the Pentagon and China’s armed forces.

In the aftermath of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, General Mark Milley, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, grew so concerned that China’s leaders were mistakenly predicting an imminent U.S. attack that he preemptively assured his Chinese counterpart that the U.S. government was “stable.” Milley’s decision may well have forestalled military conflict: historically, accidents and misunderstandings have too often led to war.

In an era of renewed competition, the risks of inadvertent escalation—leading even to a nuclear showdown—are higher than ever. As U.S. and Chinese forces in the Indo-Pacific operate in ever-closer proximity, military leaders from both countries must commit to working together to develop a flexible framework for substantive, real-time communication in order to mitigate the risk of miscalculation, effectively manage the professional and safe conduct of forces, and promote deconfliction mechanisms in the event of a crisis. Though restarting strategic communication with China will be challenging, and will not always produce tangible results, the Biden administration must make it a priority.

MUTUAL PROVOCATIONS

The danger of a miscalculation is especially acute around Taiwan. Beijing’s military posturing over the Taiwan Strait has turned increasingly aggressive, with almost daily incursions into the island’s air defense identification zone, coupled with “combat drills” targeting U.S. warships. When a U.S. Senate delegation visited Taipei in April, the People’s Liberation Army sent its carrier strike group, the Liaoning, to conduct “training exercises” off Taiwan’s coast. Beginning on Friday, October 1, as the People’s Republic celebrated its National Day, and continuing through the holiday weekend, the PLA dispatched nearly 100 sorties of aircraft, including nuclear-capable bombers and fighters, in a menacing show of force. Meanwhile, U.S. Navy surveillance aircraft have flown over Taiwan, while guided missile destroyers have routinely transited the Taiwan Strait, in what the Pentagon has affirmed are demonstrations of American commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific in accordance with international law.

Those familiar with the military planning process recognize how easily an accidental collision could ignite a conflict. The Pentagon’s war-gaming and simulation exercises demonstrate that once the military machines are in motion, escalation and entanglement are hard to avoid.

Once the military machines are in motion, escalation is hard to avoid.

Alarming scenarios are not entirely hypothetical. In 2001, when a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane collided with a PLA F-8 fighter over the South China Sea, leading to the death of a Chinese pilot and forcing the American plane to make an emergency landing on China’s Hainan Island, an 11-day military and diplomatic showdown ensued. The U.S. ambassador to China at the time, retired Admiral Joseph Prueher, later recalled that he was unable to reach any senior Chinese military officials during the initial hours of the crisis. The dispute ended only after seasoned diplomats defused the incident with a carefully worded letter, and the U.S. crew was released from Chinese custody.

Today, an accidental collision in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea—or even on the Korean Peninsula—compounded by cyberattacks and hardening nationalistic pressures at home, could set both countries on a path to all-out war neither wants. And if American and Chinese leaders fail to establish meaningful military-to-military dialogue, the question won’t be if such an accident will occur, but when.

COMPETITION WITHIN BOUNDARIES

Both governments must commit to restarting high-level bilateral talks between both military and civilian officials and expanding checks and safeguards to limit competition and prepare for crises before they occur. To start, both countries should take immediate action to arrange meetings between senior leaders of their respective armed forces.

Neither side should allow organizational differences between the two militaries to get in the way of meaningful exchange. Recently, controversy ensued when Secretary Austin’s requests to speak with General Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and China’s top-ranking military officer, were rebuffed. Meanwhile, China’s state-run media have accused the Pentagon of flouting diplomatic protocol by refusing to speak, instead, to the more junior defense minister. While the U.S. secretary of defense’s titular counterpart, Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, may not hold equivalent functional status, Pentagon chiefs of previous administrations have consistently met with China’s defense ministers. The Chinese military structure divides authority differently than the Pentagon, and while the external-facing defense minister is subordinate to the vice chairman, both are part of the Central Military Commission’s senior leadership, which exercises command and control over the PLA.

Organizational differences between the two militaries must not get in the way of meaningful exchange.

Austin should begin dialogue with any senior Chinese leader in the Central Military Commission. Productive engagements often occur between different levels of leadership, and in the past, Chinese leaders have often offered meetings with progressively more senior officials in order to demonstrate progress over time.

The United States and China should also commit to reestablishing a formal structure for communication between the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Chinese Joint Staff Department, one that has not existed since former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joe Dunford visited Beijing in 2017. Most important, senior Pentagon officials must fundamentally rethink the nature of crisis management mechanisms and make use of communications between retired military officers and officials in so-called Track 1.5 and Track II backchannel dialogues.

Both militaries must also prioritize sustained face-to-face engagement, with initial senior-level meetings serving as a launching pad for recurring functional engagement focused on practical cooperation to promote deconfliction and operational trust. The focus should be on space and cyber domains, as well as on safe conduct of maritime forces at sea. The joint staff dialogue mechanism, which was initiated under the administration of President Donald Trump in 2017 and enabled bilateral communication at the three-star level, could serve as a model.

OVERCOMING CHINESE RETICENCE

The lack of success in prior efforts at establishing guardrails and risk mitigation is in large part due to the Chinese government’s consistent refusal to engage. In December 2020, for example, representatives from China’s navy failed to appear for scheduled meetings with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as part of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement. Much of this stems from China’s political culture, in which the degree of communication is a product of the health of the overall relationship, and defense officials are wary of military engagement on the grounds that it legitimizes U.S. presence in the region. And because of political pressures on the chain of command and rigid hierarchies within the PLA, top Chinese officers are especially reluctant to engage. After the United States and China established a secure bilateral "Defense Telephone Link” as a crisis notification mechanism in 2008, the line was rarely used. The Biden administration’s top Indo-Pacific official, Kurt Campbell, recently noted that on past occasions when U.S. military officials tried to reach their Chinese counterparts using the hotline, it “just rung in an empty room for hours upon hours.”

Yet there is reason for cautious optimism that such reticence can be overcome. While in the past, Chinese military leaders have hesitated to engage out of fear that they could reveal operational vulnerabilities, such concerns are abating as the PLA modernizes and gains recognition as a peer competitor. U.S. and Chinese forces operate in closer proximity today in greater numbers of domains (space and cyber), making risk mitigation an interest for both countries. Xi has consolidated sufficient formal and informal influence over the military, making foreign outreach less of a political risk. And as National Security Council China Director Rush Doshi has argued, Beijing’s concern that military-to-military mechanisms would evoke Cold War comparisons are moot given Washington’s new bipartisan consensus that China is a strategic competitor. What’s more, the announcement that the United States will provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines, despite a predictably hostile response from China, may in fact make PLA leaders more receptive to reviving military-to-military dialogue: China’s leaders understand that since, like it or not, American security commitments and alliances in the region will only grow stronger, it is in their own interests to engage militarily.

Since American ties in the region will only grow stronger, it is in China's interests to communicate with the U.S. military.

Perhaps most important, there are signs that Xi holds great personal interest in improving military engagement, as demonstrated by his remarks during an unusual private meeting with Dunford in August 2017, in which he expressed hope that military-to-military relations could serve as a stabilizing force in the overall bilateral relationship. Reinvigorating military-to-military dialogue would be entirely consistent with long-standing U.S. policy, under both Republican and Democratic presidents. The Trump administration’s 2018 report on China’s military lauded Department of Defense engagement with China as supporting an “overall U.S. policy and strategy toward China” and the military-to-military relationship as a “stabilizing element to the overall bilateral relationship.” And in July, Secretary Austin declared his staunch commitment to “stronger crisis communications” with the PLA.

To call for dialogue and communication with China’s military leadership is not to condone its aggression or Beijing’s repression at home. Even at the height of the Cold War, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, while denouncing the Soviet Union as the “evil empire,” hosted Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev for arms control negotiations. More recently, during the war in Syria, the Trump administration pursued high-level military contact through a private channel between Dunford and Russian Chief of the General Staff Valery Gerasimov. In addition to a hotline between U.S. military officers at the operations center in Qatar and Russian counterparts in Syria, a dialogue between the two countries’ armed forces at the three-star level helped to ensure that military activities did not create dangers with the rival country that could quickly spiral out of control.

The United States and China are on a dangerous path in the Indo-Pacific. Both sides must seize the opportunity to prevent a wider conflict before it is too late.

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  • CHRIS LI is Director of Research of the Indo-Pacific Security Project at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
  • ERIC ROSENBACH is Co-Director of the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He previously served as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense for Global Security.
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