Pentagon Hopes for More China Hotlines

“This meeting is in part about setting guardrails on the relationship,” a senior U.S. defense official said.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping talk in 2011.
Joe Biden and Xi Jinping talk in 2011.
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (left) looks on as then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping speaks during talks held at a hotel in Beijing on Aug. 19, 2011. Ng Han Guan/AFP via Getty Images

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT—The Biden administration is working to develop stronger lines of military and official communication with Beijing to avoid a crisis, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appears set for his first face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore on Friday evening.

The United States is looking for better lines of communication between Austin and Wei as well as increased engagement between Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Chinese counterpart and between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief and Chinese regional commanders. U.S. officials said they have seen “some progress” toward establishing communication mechanisms with China but did not elaborate further. 

Senior U.S. defense officials said China requested the Friday meeting between Austin and Wei; the two defense chiefs spoke by phone in late April. The meeting comes as China appears to be consolidating basing and security deals in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific that have rattled U.S. officials, who believe Beijing has not been transparent about its true plans.

ABOARD A U.S. MILITARY AIRCRAFT—The Biden administration is working to develop stronger lines of military and official communication with Beijing to avoid a crisis, as U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin appears set for his first face-to-face meeting with his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, in Singapore on Friday evening.

The United States is looking for better lines of communication between Austin and Wei as well as increased engagement between Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and his Chinese counterpart and between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief and Chinese regional commanders. U.S. officials said they have seen “some progress” toward establishing communication mechanisms with China but did not elaborate further. 

Senior U.S. defense officials said China requested the Friday meeting between Austin and Wei; the two defense chiefs spoke by phone in late April. The meeting comes as China appears to be consolidating basing and security deals in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific that have rattled U.S. officials, who believe Beijing has not been transparent about its true plans.

“This meeting is in part about setting guardrails on the relationship, continuing to call for developing more mature crisis communications and risk management mechanisms as well as an opportunity for the secretary to share some significant concerns we have about global and regional security issues,” one senior defense official who briefed reporters said. The United States established a crisis communications working group in 2020, but it still lacks fulsome mechanisms for leaders to regularly pick up the phone and touch base in the event of a crisis.

But as two successive U.S. administrations have been more forceful in calling out China’s land grabs in the South China Sea and ambitions to take Taiwan—perhaps even by force—diplomacy has become much more combative, and guardrails between Washington and Beijing have been tougher to put in place. The United States has a new so-called crisis management working group with China, but it lacks everyday mechanisms to deal with possible fault lines in the region. The United States is particularly concerned about what officials see as unprofessional and dangerous military maneuvers in the South and East China Seas, in Taiwan’s air defense identification zones, on the border with India, and in Oceania. 

One of the latest major diplomatic encounters between both sides—a meeting between U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and their Chinese counterparts in Alaska last year—erupted into verbal warfare in front of a gaggle of reporters, who U.S. officials urged to remain in the room amid a heated argument. A follow-up meeting between Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Yang Jiechi in Switzerland resulted in fewer fireworks. And there is a fairly limited history of crisis management mechanisms between the United States and China, which do not have long-standing arms control talks. U.S. officials have lamented that China is less interested in doing diplomacy the American way. 

That has led to some rude surprises about Beijing’s military ambitions in Washington. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has given U.S. officials further cause for concern by announcing exclusive access to Ream Naval Base in Cambodia, an effort that both Beijing and Phnom Penh had long insisted was for nonmilitary use.

“We’ve seen the Cambodians and the Chinese taking extraordinary steps to conceal PRC involvement at Ream Naval Base—bordering on the absurd,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “Sometimes disguising PRC military personnel during foreign visits. Sometimes limiting PRC activity while outside delegations were present. [It] has this Potemkin village feel to it.”

The official said the United States was keeping a “careful eye” on China’s efforts to establish a network of overseas bases. The U.S. Defense Department has outlined Chinese desires to pursue military facilities stretching from Myanmar and Thailand to Pakistan and the United Arab Emirates to complement its base in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, just a stone’s throw from U.S. forces in the area. 

To avoid another debacle like the 2021 meeting, U.S. defense officials have been on the ground in Singapore for days ahead of the meeting, negotiating specific details and ground rules. 

“One of the ground rules that we aim to establish with the [People’s Republic of China] is that we’re going to characterize our position, and they can characterize their position,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “We are taking every effort to ensure that this is a professional and substantive meeting. There’s no desire on the part of the United States to make it a public spectacle.”

But former U.S. officials said Wei, the Chinese defense minister, may not be a perfect counterpart for a meeting, ranking far lower on China’s true military pecking order than top officials on China’s Central Military Commission, which is chaired by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Former officials indicated that China is likely to use the meeting for a get-to-know-you chat, but they won’t give into U.S. demands to knock off behavior seen as unsafe by the United States or start playing by the rules. 

“Expectations are probably very low that anything meaningful will come of that engagement,” said Craig Singleton, a former U.S. State Department official who now works at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Still, he said, just holding fairly high-level meetings is important. 

“It’s important that open lines of communication remain in place to prevent miscalculation to ensure that the two sides can effectively communicate,” he added.

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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