U.S. military called China on a crisis hotline during the spy balloon crisis but Chinese officials refused to talk

U.S. military called China on a crisis hotline during the spy balloon crisis but Chinese officials refused to talk

A few hours after an Air Force F-22 shoot down a giant Chinese balloon that had crossed the United States, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin contacted his Chinese counterpart via a special crisis line, aiming for a quick general-to-general talk that could explain things and ease tensions.

But Austin’s effort on Saturday fell flat, when Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe refused to take the line, the Pentagon said.

China’s Defense Ministry said it turned down Austin’s appeal after the balloon was shot down because the United States had “failed to create the proper atmosphere” for dialogue and exchanges. The US action “seriously violated international standards and set a pernicious precedent,” a ministry spokesperson said in a statement late Thursday.

It’s an experience that has frustrated US commanders for decades, when it comes to getting their Chinese counterparts on a phone or video line amid a blazing crisis heightened tensions between the two nations.

From an American perspective, the lack of the kind of reliable crisis communications that helped the United States and the Soviet Union weather the Cold War without an armed nuclear exchange raises the dangers of U.S.-China relations today, at a time when China’s military strength is growing and tensions with the United States are rising.

Without this ability for generals in opposing capitals to clarify things quickly, Americans fear that misunderstandings, false reports or accidental collisions could escalate a minor confrontation into greater hostilities.

And it’s not about a technical lack with communications equipment, said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of Indo-Pacific studies at the German Marshall Fund think tank. At issue is a fundamental difference in how China and the United States view the value and purpose of military-to-military hotlines.

US military leaders’ faith in Washington-Beijing hotlines as a way to defuse flare-ups with the Chinese military has come up against a radically different approach – a Chinese political system that operates on slow deliberative consultation with political leaders and does not no room for individually directed real-time conversations between rival generals.

And Chinese leaders are wary of the whole American notion of a hotline – viewing it as an American channel to try to extricate itself from the repercussions of an American provocation.

“It’s really dangerous,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Ely Ratner said Thursday of the difficulty of military-to-military crisis communications with China, when Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley pressed him about the China’s latest rebuff over Beijing and Washington’s hotline setup.

US generals are persisting in their efforts to open more lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts, the defense official said, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And unfortunately, to this day, the PLA does not respond to this call,” Ratner said, referring to the People’s Liberation Army of China.

Ratner accused China of using vital communication channels simply as a blunt messaging tool, shutting them down or reopening them to emphasize China’s displeasure or pleasure with the United States.

China’s resistance to military hotlines as tensions rise makes it more urgent for President Joe Biden and his top civilian diplomats and security aides to create their own channels of communication with President Xi Jinping and others. senior Chinese politicians, for situations where military hotlines may go unanswered, say US officials and Chinese experts.

Both American and Chinese the military is preparing for a possible confrontation on US-backed autonomous Taiwan, which China claims as its territory. The next push seems only a matter of time. It could happen with an expected event, like Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy’s promised visit to Taiwan, or something unexpected, like the 2001 collision between a Chinese fighter and a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane. over southern China. Sea. Without commanders speaking in real time, the Americans and Chinese would have one less way to avoid greater conflict.

“I fear the EP-3 type incident could happen again,” said Lyle Morris, country director for China in the office of the Secretary of Defense from 2019 to 2021, now a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy. Institute. “And we will be in very different political environments of hostility and distrust, where it could go wrong in a hurry.”

Biden has emphasized building lines of communication with China to “responsibly manage” their differences. A November meeting between Xi and Biden culminated in the announcement that the two governments would resume a series of dialogues that China had halted after an August visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Last weekend, the United States canceled what would have been a relationship-building visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken after the transit of the Chinese balloon, which the United States said was destined for the spying. China claims it was a civilian balloon used for weather research.

The same week that the Chinese balloon flew over the United States, Austin was in the Philippines to announce an expanded US military footprint there, neighboring China, noted Tiehlin Yen, director of the Taiwan Center for Security Studies, a group of reflection. “America is also very nationalistic these days,” Yen said.

“From a regional security perspective, this dialogue is necessary,” Yen said.

What passes for military and civilian hotlines between China and the United States are not the classic red telephones on a desk.

Under a 2008 agreement, the Sino-US military hotline amounts to a multi-step process by which one capital transmits to the other a request for a joint call or video conference between senior officials over encrypted lines. The pact gives the other side 48+ hours to respond, although nothing in the pact prevents senior officials from speaking out immediately.

Sometimes when the United States calls, current and former U.S. officials say, Chinese officials don’t even answer.

“Nobody answered. It just rang,” said Kristen Gunness, a senior political analyst at the Rand Corporation. Gunness was speaking of an incident that occurred in March 2009 while working as an adviser to the chief of naval operations at the Pentagon. At the time, Chinese navy ships surrounded a US surveillance vessel in the South China Sea and demanded US leave.US and Chinese military officials finally spoke – but about 24 hours later.

It took decades for Washington to pressure Beijing to accept the current system of military crisis communications, said David Sedney, a former deputy undersecretary of defense who brokered it.

“And then once we got it in place, it was clear that they were very reluctant to use it for any substantive purpose,” Sedney said.

Test calls from Americans on the hotline would be intercepted, he said. And when Americans called to congratulate them on certain Chinese holidays, Chinese officials answered and said thank you, he said.

Anything more sensitive, Sedney said, staff members answering the phone would “say, ‘We’ll check. As soon as our leaders are ready to talk, we’ll get back to you. Nothing would happen.

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