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Foreign Policy

Biden seeks protection hotline with China

May 10, 2021, 1:24 p.m.

Biden’s government is increasingly trying to avoid accidental escalation with China, a senior defense official said by working on channels to reduce the risk of planes, ships and troops hitting the Asia-Pacific region on an increasingly crowded map Bumping heads.

The urge to add more defense hotlines comes in the lead up to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin’s trip to Singapore for what is known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the top defense summit in the region, where US and Chinese officials have traditionally talked about the sidelines. If the forum meets early next month, it could be an opportunity for the new administration’s second face-to-face meeting with Beijing after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had an irritable exchange with Chinese officials in March.

But when Austin gets the opportunity to speak to his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, he hopes to prioritize crisis communication and risk reduction in areas like the South China Sea, the official said on condition of anonymity. The idea is to create multiple avenues to communicate with Beijing to deal with the growing strategic competition between the two powers and prevent the occurrence of a possible conflict, especially as the Chinese Navy – the largest in the world – continues its reach to India expands the Pacific and assumes an increasingly warlike attitude in the western Pacific.

Even so, the Ministry of Defense is tempering its expectations, as the Chinese have been unwilling to engage in crisis management in the past.

“The challenge, in large part, is that the Chinese have never been particularly receptive to doing things the US likes to do,” said the senior defense official.

China has been stepping up pressure on U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific region in recent months, including the almost daily buzz of Taiwanese and Japanese air defense zones and the use of civilian fishing vessels to tighten claims on disputed areas in the south and east China seas, where the U.S. Navy is conducting freedom-of-sea navigation operations. Just days after President Joe Biden took office, the USS Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group sailed to China through the South China Sea passed January law authorizing Coast Guard ships to fire on foreign ships threatening Chinese sovereignty. And officials and experts expect U.S. and Chinese ships to face closer calls. China is building more ships every year to overtake the US Navy as the largest in the world.

The Biden administration has maintained the high-level defense system that existed between U.S. and Chinese officials who gathered in January 2020 to work on risk mitigation in the Asia-Pacific region and improving crisis communication between the two sides. after an advertisement. In a subordinate dialog China and the United States last spoke about improving security between U.S. and Chinese naval and air forces two years ago, but China skipped that latest Round table, said a second senior defense official, who also speaks on condition of anonymity.

The desire for an improved hotline came into the spotlight this week when Kurt Campbell, Asia chief of the National Security Council, said China should “reconsider its past ambivalence” in order to resolve conflicts. And the China overshoot problem came to a head this week when a Chinese rocket and space station module passed within 200 miles of the International Space Station on launch before falling to Earth this weekend.

Experts said any conflict between the United States and China would result from an ongoing military escalation rather than an accidental collision of planes or ships. However, some noted that the Biden administration’s request for a hotline could help mitigate criticism from Beijing or other Asia-Pacific countries that Washington could likely blame for mounting tensions in the region.

“If the United States continues to focus its attention on the western Pacific, if it takes steps to strengthen its military stance in the region, if it inevitably wants to focus a little more on China in modernizing its defense, that will create natural tensions said Evan Montgomery, director of research and studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. “One thing that the pursuit of the hotline does, at least visually, is that it helps to level out some of these criticisms.”

One of the models investigated by officials in the Trump administration resembled the U.S. deconflict mechanisms with the Russians in Syria, which enabled both sides to warn each other as they crossed into rival airspace on either side of the Euphrates in a state of war Country. Chinese officials have asked for updates and briefings on the model, said a former senior defense official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The need for a new and improved The mechanism to avoid accidental escalation was a matter of course for some on the American side as well as for elements of the Chinese navy. China’s political culture, however, remains a challenge. Rather than seeing a formal crisis communication channel as an insurance policy against a hot war, Chinese officials might view the guardrails as a sign that the United States is ready to deal with major military risks in the region.

“The Chinese perspective is that if I set up a crisis communication hotline with you, things can get worse and worse,” said the former official. “The lack of a network inherently reduces the political risk I might take.”

Others see China taking advantage of the Pentagon’s perceived fear of stumbling into wars the United States does not want to expand territorial claims in the region.

“China can say if you want to reduce the risk of accidents, you just shouldn’t be here,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a resident researcher at the American Enterprise Institute. “They are also using this strategically to pressure the United States to reduce its military presence in the region.”

There are already some mechanisms in place to ensure that encounters between US and Chinese forces remain below the conflict line, although they are rarely used. A US-China hotline set up during the Clinton administration after an eight-month cross-strait crisis went unused. Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama later agreed establish more secure call connections to inform each other about military crises, but these too sat idle.

“Even if mechanisms are in place, they are not being fully used,” said the second senior defense official.

A more robust system could create channels of communication between the U.S. Indo-Pacific command and the Chinese armed forces, as well as ways to defuse interactions between U.S. and Chinese surface vessels and aircraft, the current senior defense official said. These channels could allow the United States and China to work together on areas such as humanitarian aid and disaster relief as Chinese maritime power continues to expand into the Indo-Pacific, the official added.

However, efforts to develop military-to-military hotlines have also been hampered by large structural differences between Pentagon and Chinese military operations in the region. China’s People’s Liberation Army, known as PLA, The air and naval forces were restructured into five smaller theater commandos in 2016 on the instructions of Xi. These focus only on China’s sub-regions, while the US Indo-Pacific Command covers the entire region.

The second senior defense official said the Pentagon has traditionally been challenged in developing hotlines to China because US combatant commandos “are not necessarily a natural partner for any element in the PLA.” There are at least three Chinese theater teams “who are instrumental in issues of interest to us, probably all five,” the official added.

Even if the Biden government maintains its hotline, much of the US-China relationship will remain ambiguous. Campbell, Biden’s top hand in Asia, said this week the United States would not reverse its policy of “strategic ambiguity” towards Taiwan over whether the Pentagon would come to defend the island if attacked by China.

Some former Trump administration officials hope the hotline will be set up to give the new team experience in dealing with the Chinese military. “The less contact people have with the Chinese, the more they form distorted views of Chinese behavior,” said the former senior defense official.

Others fear, however, that setting up a hotline after Beijing could prevent the Biden government from dealing consistently with China.

“Is the message” China, don’t worry, we are not trying to undermine your rise, we are just friends here, “or is the message” If you step out of line, you will be there. Skylar Mastro asked, “Trouble? It’s really difficult to get both messages across at the same time.”

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