Hotlines ‘Ringing’: China’s Military Crisis Strategy Must Be Rethought, Says Biden Asia Chief

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Hotlines ‘Ringing’: China’s Military Crisis Strategy Must Be Rethought, Says Biden Asia Chief


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The top Biden administration official for Asia has warned of the lack of a crisis communications channel between the United States and China at a time of mounting military tensions over Taiwan and the United States. South China Sea.

Hotlines for the military and leaders were established at various points in the relationship’s tense history, but Kurt Campbell, the Asian White House “czar” responsible for coordinating policy across the administration, said Beijing had shown no interest in using them, other than a preference for uncertainty. The hotline simply rings in “empty rooms,” he said.

Chinese leader Xi Jinping continued to test the nerves of Taiwan and its allies, stepping up forays into island democracy airspace with his fighter jets and holding ever closer combat exercises of the territory.

Friction also remains high in the South China Sea, where the United States conducts freedom of navigation patrols with its warships in territorial waters unilaterally claimed by Beijing.

Kurt Campbell says, “I think there is general concern about miscalculations, incidents and accidents” with China’s current strategy. Photograph: Thomas Peter / Reuters

“I think there is a general concern of miscalculations, incidents and accidents, and I don’t think there are effective procedures with China to avoid them,” said Campbell, coordinator from the White House for the Indo-Pacific, to the Guardian.

“China has generally resisted any effective effort in this type of confidence-building and crisis management process. In the past, the hotlines that have been set up have just ringing, a little endlessly in empty rooms. The Chinese have therefore chosen not to go in this direction.

“At the same time that they are escalating these military activities in close proximity to US and Allied forces, they have done so without any sort of guardrail or reassurance mechanisms,” Campbell said.

Direct lines between military and civilian leaders were a security feature of the rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But as China’s military might has increased relative to that of Russia, efforts to establish lasting crisis lines of communication between Washington and Beijing have failed.

President Bill Clinton and Secretary General Jiang Zemin agreed to create a hotline in 1997, but it was never used properly, even when NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999.

In 2014, Barack Obama and Xi signed a memorandum of understanding on the rules of behavior in maritime and air meetings. In an annex to the agreement the following year, the two countries said they would establish a “military crisis notification mechanism” for audio and video defense links “to reduce risk, foster mutual trust and to increase openness ”.

But Campbell said Beijing had not used the channel.

“For a host of reasons, the Chinese have been reluctant to engage deeply in these efforts. China has different calculations on the good conduct of civil-military relations, ”he said in a telephone interview. “They fear that by establishing these mechanisms they will give credibility and legitimacy to US military exercises and operations near their borders and they don’t want to do that.”

“Even during the Cold War, we had much more effective crisis communications between the United States and the Soviet Union,” he said. “As China’s capacity has grown dramatically and operates around the world – it is now a near-equivalent military power – I think it needs to rethink its previous ambivalence about some of these mechanisms. This is an area that we want to explore with them as we move forward.

Caitlin Talmadge, associate professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, said Campbell was right to be concerned about the lack of lasting communications with an assertive and growing military might.

“I agree with Kurt that the lack of functioning crisis communication channels, as well as a broader lack of regular and in-depth strategic dialogue, is a serious problem in US-China relations,” Talmadge said. “This increases the risk of miscalculation and escalation, especially over Taiwan. Both parties must understand each other’s red lines and would benefit from putting in place exit mechanisms in the event of a crisis or war.

Campbell confirmed earlier this week that the new administration will not change the US policy of “strategic ambiguity” in Taiwan, which means Washington will not specify if, and under what circumstances, it will come to the country’s defense.

Since the establishment of diplomatic relations with Beijing in 1978, the official policy of the United States has been that there is only one China, despite the fact that Taiwan functions as a completely independent country. The deal with the Communist leadership was that as long as this protocol was maintained, peaceful reunification was theoretically possible and the invasion was unnecessary.

The Biden administration, however, continues the example of its predecessor by steadily increasing its support for Taiwan. Biden invited Taiwan’s envoy to his inauguration, the first US president to do so in more than 40 years. In April, Washington lifted more restrictions on contact with Taiwanese officials.

Campbell said the administration was ready to take the next step in pushing for Taiwanese recognition on the world stage, supporting its representation in global bodies such as the World Health Authority (WHA), the governing body of the World Health Organization.

“I think there are opportunities for Taiwan to take advantage of a larger international space under appropriate guidelines,” he said. “We would support Taiwan’s greater participation in a number of venues, including its engagement in the WHA, given the tremendous success Taiwan has had in its dealings with Covid. They have a lot of value to share with others. “

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