rom October 28-29, 2020, the Chinese and US militaries held a virtual meeting on crisis communication, where the two sides discussed the concept of crisis communication, prevention and management.
The meeting is a new communication mechanism between China and the US, as existing channels may not be enough to effectively prevent military confrontations from escalating into military crises.
In 1998, the US and China reached agreement to establish a consultation mechanism to strengthen military maritime safety and pledged not to target nuclear missiles at each other. In 2008, leaders of the two countries agreed to establish a direct telephone link for quick communication between the two defense ministries in times of crisis. In April 2014, the two countries signed the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) and later in November 2014, a memorandum of understanding was signed on the Rules of Behavior for the Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters.
Despite these agreements, there have been multiple incidents involving military confrontation. In 2001, a US spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet in the air off the coast of South China’s Hainan Island, leading to the death of the Chinese pilot. In another incident in September 2018, two destroyers from the two navies came within 41 meters of each other.
Both the US and China want to avoid military conflict. But at the same time, the US has stepped up its provocations in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea, which China perceives as a threat to its sovereignty and security. In other words, the US is demanding China to ensure its safety when it conducts perceived military provocations against China.
The US and China should prioritize crisis management between the two militaries. As the first meeting to address the concept of crisis management, this is a new mechanism between the two militaries because the existing mechanism would be no longer enough to prevent military conflicts as the US increases its military activities in the West Pacific.
For the US, how to prevent military encounters is a tactical issue. But for China, it is a strategic issue. As the two sides perceive the same issues from different perspectives, it is very difficult to reach a consensus.
The China-US relationship deteriorated rapidly after the Trump administration officially designated China as a strategic rival. If there is any consensus left between the two countries, it is a shared view that military conflicts between the world’s two largest economies and two nuclear powers should be avoided. In the future, the relationship between the two militaries could become the new cornerstone of the China-US relationship. To prevent military conflicts, the US and China should learn from the experiences of the US and the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. Both sides should follow the relevant agreements and make sure that frontline soldiers are familiar with the correct protocol during encounters.
The most difficult task in the future will be how to manage a crisis after it takes place. The China-US rivalry is different from that between the US and the former Soviet Union. During the Cold War, both the US and Soviet Union established their own spheres of influence and engaged in proxy wars without direct military conflict. But China does not seek to establish a sphere of influence, and there is no buffer zone to prevent a crisis from escalating into a conflict.
In the military crisis between the US and China during the mid-air military aircraft collision in 2001, China decided to release the US air crew it detained for the sake of the overall bilateral relationship after the US only made a verbal apology.
Now 20 years have passed. While the US military still has considerable advantages over China in its overall strength, China has made major progress in term of its military capability and logistical support in the Western Pacific. If a similar crisis takes place, it would be a serious challenge for the two governments to defuse a potentially very dangerous situation amid media hysteria and strong nationalist sentiments in both countries. It is something that both governments should take very seriously.