Don’t expect Xi to restore the US-China military hotline this week

  • November 16, 2023

When President Joe Biden meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping this week in San Francisco, the two leaders will have plenty to discuss in the impromptu meeting.

But by all accounts, one item on the agenda will be a dubious promise: Biden’s request that the two countries restore their military-to-military numbers that China has refused to use in recent years.

It’s good that Biden made the request, but he should expect “no” to be the answer – and avoid conveying the US’s grave concerns about the two nations’ military conflicts in the Western Pacific.

In fact, US concerns are not just an unintended consequence of Chinese actions – they may be their intention. Therefore, expressing serious concerns can somehow confirm and promote China’s strategy.

About Chinese provocation

Confidence, condition is something about. According to Pentagon data, in the past two years, China has made close flights of American aircraft operating in international waters in the Western Pacific at least 180 times – more than in all the previous ten years.

Some have been downright dangerous, as in the recent case when a Chinese plane came within 10 meters of an American bomber. China has also built up near collisions and even actual collisions involving ships at sea – sometimes with its own coast guard or navy instead of the navy, and often at the expense of Philippine and foreign vessels.

Since August 2022, after the former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, China has dramatically increased the frequency of its military crossing the line between China and Taiwan, the traditional informal barrier between the two countries’ military operations.

One day in September, according to The Washington Post, China sent more than 100 planes across that route, many of which landed in an airfield near Taiwan’s east coast (but not in Taiwan’s waters/airspace, at least for now).

Obviously, this provocation is intentional. Among other things, they are probably designed to convince Manila not to pursue Philippine territorial claims in the South China Sea, to persuade Taiwanese citizens not to push for independence or greater independence (including in their upcoming January presidential election), and act.

Washington is rethinking its entire presence and strategy in the Western Pacific. The efforts are too organized for any other explanation to be plausible. In this regard, our feelings and concerns are the target of Beijing’s actions. Unhappiness and fear in the United States and elsewhere is probably China’s main strategic goal.

Explaining Chinese behavior

However, if our collective concern is a strategic goal, and the realignment of basic power structures in the Western Pacific is a long-term strategic goal, how does Beijing hope the former can translate into the latter? Of course, we don’t really know what Xi and his (rapidly changing) military leadership team are thinking.

Indeed, especially given recent firings and recruitments in the Chinese military, key leaders may not be thinking the same things or have the same idea of ​​how to translate tactical work into strategic success. But many possibilities are possible:

  • Not understanding American politics, China’s leaders believe that the great tension will somehow convince the United States to loosen its ties in the Western Pacific region (when in fact the opposite result seems possible).
  • Irritated by what it sees as an excessive American military presence near its coast, China is simply responding in a way that can be used, and without having a clear idea of ​​how these pieces should fit together.
  • Feeling emboldened by its latest military build-up and behaving in the way that officials, and states, tend to do when they have new capabilities, China is flexing its muscles — again in hopes of demonstrating the growing power Xi hopes for. it will give him the power to seize Taiwan in 2027 (among other goals).
  • To adopt the concept of the late great American diplomat Thomas Schelling, China creates a “threat that automatically leaves something behind.” One day, with all this increased activity, a terrible conflict and great loss of life will occur. Meanwhile, all bets are off as to how the relevant parties (China, the United States, US friends and allies) will respond.

This may be the last time American diplomats are too scared – but the Chinese are likely to welcome it. That doesn’t mean Beijing wants a confrontation. Yet it may accept the prospect of a crisis, even an escalating crisis, as its best hope for weakening US influence near its shores. When such a disaster begins, many things can happen, some of which are not easily foreseen. Beijing may be willing to roll the dice.

US China strategy amid uncertainty

It must be the intention of the US to show China that its thinking is absurd. A calm, calm statement of US commitment to the region, and to its friends, allies, and allies there, is a better way forward than a passionate request for the return of a military fence that China will likely use consistently even if it is not returned. .

Meanwhile, Biden may also consider an idea that former Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg and I proposed ten years ago – the creation of an “open skies” surveillance system where China could fly over certain parts of the United States from time to time (by plane – not). balloons – and on previously approved civil aviation routes) and the United States can fly heavily into China.

We had such an agreement with former Soviet states and allies for many years, since the end of the Cold War, so we know that such practices are consistent with the protection of US secrets.

It won’t solve everything, of course. But it may take away China’s frustration that while the United States deploys reconnaissance aircraft, ships, and submarines off China’s coast every day, the People’s Republic of China (for now) has no retaliatory power. We can make this good faith offering without risking our security.

Nevertheless, Biden should remember that in China, creating tension and a certain level of danger in the US-China relationship is not a negative product of the military activities of the People’s Liberation Army – it is actually the intention of the Chinese. To believe otherwise could play into China’s hands and encourage an escalation rather than a decline in the conventional military posture in the Western Pacific region.