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Politics & Security

The Chinese Military Won't Talk To the US ー So What?

US officials keep asking China for mil-to-mil communications. But the Chinese military knows, if you want to make Americans uncomfortable, don't talk to them.

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A Chinese warship sails off the coast of Fuzhou, Fujian Province, China, near the main island of Taiwan, on April 8. Military exercises and patrols were held around Taiwan on the same day, according to a statement by the Chinese military. (© Reuters via Kyodo)

During his recent visit to China, Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly asked his hosts to set up a military-to-military crisis communications hotline. They declined. USINDOPACOM commander, Admiral John Aquilino complained earlier this year that the Chinese were ignoring his requests to establish direct communications channels with the Chinese military People's Liberation Army (PLA) regional commands.

And Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was rebuffed when he sought a meeting with China's Defense Minister during the Shangri-La Dialogue in June.

Top United States civilian and military officials may be fretting. But they might better worry about having too few Navy ships and submarines or stocks of anti-ship cruise missiles instead of having their Chinese counterparts on speed dial.

A Chinese fighter jet "Ji-16" flies near the US Air Force's RC-135 electronic reconnaissance aircraft in the South China Sea on May 31. (Provided by the US Navy, AP via Kyodo)

China Knows How to Contact US Forces

The US military has been jousting with the Chinese military in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait for a number of years. And it's a stroke of good luck nobody has gotten hurt or killed.

How critical is it to have designated communication lines with the PLA?

It doesn't matter that much. The People's Liberation Army also knows how to get in touch with the United States military in the area if it wants to. 

Communications channels already exist for all militaries operating in the sea and/or air to communicate with each other. You'll also notice that the Chinese military routinely contacts US and Australian, Japanese, Canadian, and other ships and aircraft to warn them to stay out of what the Chinese say is their territory.

The Chinese think the Americans (and everyone else) should not be operating in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait without China's permission. So that sets the tone for the relationship. Having some other or special "communications link" isn't going to change anybody's mind.  

Chinese warship Luyang III sails near and crosses in front of the US destroyer USS Chung-Hoon. As seen from the deck of US destroyer in the Taiwan Strait on June 3, 2023, in this handout picture. (US Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Andre T. Richard/Handout via REUTERS)

What's Wrong With Mil-to-Mil Hotlines?

When the PLA tries to ram or obstruct US ships and aircraft they know exactly what they are doing. And the orders come from "on high." Being able to call the Chinese up on a designated line to tell them they shouldn't do what they are doing seems pointless. The Chinese know we aren't happy. They also don't care.

You might ask again, why won't China agree to mil-to-mil hotlines

The answer is in large part because the Americans are so eager to have such a communications channel. If the Chinese refuse to join such a link it's possible (indeed, likely) the Americans will offer some concession to get the Chinese to agree. Say, for example, not making an issue of a Chinese spy balloon over the United States. 

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The concession might not even be on the military front. It might be relaxing economic sanctions on the People's Republic of China. Or it might be not complaining about China's human rights abuses and intellectual property theft

Another concession might be pretending Xi Jinping knows nothing about the fentanyl that killed 70,000 Americans in 2022.

Proceeding with US Operations in the Indo-Pacific

Some might ask whether this absence of communication between the two militaries affects US operations in the Indo-Pacific region. Not really, is the answer.  

The Chinese know what they are doing and what they intend to do. Their objective is to drive the Americans out of the Asia-Pacific and for the PRC to dominate the region. They've been clear enough about this. 

It is an adversarial relationship ー owing to China's position and objective. And no communication or engagement with the PRC or the PLA is going to make a difference.  

The US military went all out on "communication" and "engagement" with the PLA for a few decades. That was until the Trump administration. In fact, the PLA was even twice invited to RIMPAC, the US Navy's premier regional exercise.  

And what did we get from this policy?  A Chinese military that has caught up with us in many areas and has surpassed us in others. They could give the US military a bloody nose in certain circumstances.  A very bloody nose.  

It's jaw-dropping that some US officers are now calling for a return to unrestrained engagement with the PLA and the PRC. This will cost American lives at some point. 30 years of empirical evidence ought to be instructive.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with China's Foreign Minister Qin Gang at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China. June 18, 2023. (©REUTERS/Leah Millis/Pool)

How About a Different Approach?

It's an American conceit, however, that if we can just talk to somebody we can solve any problem.

But, will the US keep trying to set up these communication channels with the Chinese military? How about a different approach or strategy?

I'm sure the US will continue begging for new communications channels with the PRC ー like a desperate suitor. Nothing good comes from appearing to be a supplicant when dealing with the Chinese. 

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Should the Americans try a different approach? Perhaps.  There doesn't seem to be any form of self-abasement that the US Government won't try with the Chinese.

However, any US officer or official calling for dialogue and engagement with the People's Liberation Army should be required to explain how it will produce good results (this time).  And a rote: "Dialogue is always good" is a very American answer. But it is not a sane answer.

It's better to be in a bigger hurry to get the US military ready to fight and win – rather than having rap sessions with the Chinese. They have been getting ready to fight while we've been more interested in engaging and talking.

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Author: Grant Newsham

Grant Newsham is a retired US Marine officer and former US diplomat. He is the author of the book When China Attacks: A Warning To America. Find his articles on JAPAN Forward.

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