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Weaponization of US-China Military Communications


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The main purpose of  last month’s visit to China by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was, in his words, to re-establish communications to reduce “misunderstandings and miscommunications” so as to prevent or manage incidents between the two militaries. But he was unsuccessful. It seems that the very agreement to talk has become politicized and that the communications process is being “used” to the advantage of one or the other.   

The level of US-China military communications is at a historic nadir and incidents between their militaries are increasing in frequency and intensity. As incidents proliferate, a cacophony of policymakers and analysts – including myself – is calling for better communication to avoid or manage them before they get out of control. 

Tension remains high. On June 3, a collision between US and Chinese warships was narrowly avoided when a Chinese vessel abruptly cut across the bow of the US ship in the Taiwan Strait. This incident came hot on the heels of a May 31 incident that Washington called an unsafe and unprofessional intercept of a US intelligence-collection plane over the South China Sea.

Both blamed each other for the near catastrophes. According to the US, these incidents were part of a pattern of more aggressive and belligerent risk-taking.  

The US wants to re-establish communications to buy time and tamp down the possibilities of conflict. But China is not “cooperating.” As Sun Yun, senior fellow and co-director of the East Asia Program and director of the China Program at the Stimson Center, points out, their positions on restarting military dialogue may be part of a strategy that encompasses the communication process.

At the very least it seems to have been captured by their fundamental differences. Some even say China is not interested in improving military-to-military communications and believes actions on both sides speak for themselves.

As Sun points out, with the US overreach in the Ukraine war and hotspots around the globe, China may think that Washington is more averse to conflict than it is. That means China thinks it has more diplomatic space to maneuver.

Suspicion on both sides

China may also think that agreeing to communicate will undermine its tactic of brinkmanship. Moreover, it may want to keep the US guessing and cautious as to its intent and red lines whose crossing may trigger military conflict.

China may also think that the process of military communication favors the US because it can point to it as its good-faith effort and have more freedom of action while negotiations continue.

At the extreme, China may even believe that a crisis would provide an opportunity to extract concessions from the US and to negotiate in earnest a regime of peaceful co-existence.  

So China may want to slow-play military-to-military communications. If this is so, US personal sanctions on Defense Minister Li Shangfu provide it an opportunity to refuse dialogue and blame it on a petty ad hominen.

Realpolitik is influencing the talks.  China is demanding that the US demonstrate good faith by actions, not words. It seems that every opportunity for meaningful talks is preceded, followed  or even accompanied by aggressive or negative actions on both sides.

The close-in intelligence-gathering and freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) continue unabated. The US mouths the “one-China policy” yet it sends ever more arms and high-level politicians to Taiwan. 

We only know of major incidents. It seems that there are more that go unreported. China wants the US to dial back its daily close-in intelligence-gathering focused on its defenses as well as its provocative and redundant FONOPs targeting China’s maritime claims. The US thinks that to do to so unilaterally could be a sign of weakness. 

‘One China,’ sort of

Most important, China wants the US to tamp down its political and military support for Taiwan. Beijing believes Washington is bit by bit undermining the Shanghai Communiqué in which the US acknowledged there is only one China. It is difficult to envisage productive dialogue until these conditions are met. Otherwise mutual suspicion will prevail.

Even with better military-to-military communications, the trust gap is unlikely to improve and dangerous incidents are still likely. This is because they do not stem from misunderstandings and miscommunications but are rooted in deeper differences regarding the “international order” and strategic interests. So the best outcome of talks would be to set up a system to manage these incidents when they occur.

The two countries have stated their fundamental policies regarding their relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping proffered “three nos.” China “does not seek to change the existing international order, does not interfere in the United States’ internal affairs and has no intention of displacing the United States.”

US President Joe Biden has stated “five nos.”

“The United States does not seek a new cold war. It does not seek conflict with China to change China’s system. The revitalization of its alliances is not directed at China and does not support Taiwanese independence.”

But their actions do not seem to match their words.

Xi has proposed “a new model of great-power relations” that implies equality and shared responsibility in world affairs. But so far the US has in essence rejected it, apparently because it believes that it is the world’s only “exceptional” nation. Expecting that to change soon is unrealistic.

This communications conundrum is a corollary to the concept of mutual transparency in military affairs. While military “transparency” may sound neutral and reasonable, it favors the more powerful. The more powerful country can intimidate the other by revealing its capabilities while the inferior military power displays its weaknesses that can be exploited by the more powerful side.

Besides, “transparency” is ambiguous. The US claims to be transparent, but try to ask questions about the position and role of its nuclear-armed submarines, or its specific intelligence collection capabilities in the South China Sea.

Until the “nos” on either side begin to ring true, there will be little progress on meaningful military-to-military communications, and tension will remain high in the South China Sea.

Source : Asia Times


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