Report

Biden Looks for Defense Hotline With China

The United States says it’s ready to call China in a crisis. Will Beijing pick up?

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping accompanies then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden.
Then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping (right) accompanies then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to view an honor guard during a welcoming ceremony in Beijing on Aug. 18, 2011. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The Biden administration is increasingly looking to avoid accidental escalation with China, a senior defense official said, by cooperating on channels to reduce the risk of planes, ships, and troops butting heads on an increasingly crowded map in the Asia-Pacific. 

The push to add more defense hotlines comes in the lead-up to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Singapore for what is known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the top defense summit in the region, where U.S. and Chinese officials have traditionally gaggled on the sidelines. If a meeting comes together at the forum early next month, it could be a chance for the new administration’s second face-to-face with Beijing, after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a testy exchange with Chinese officials in March. 

The Biden administration is increasingly looking to avoid accidental escalation with China, a senior defense official said, by cooperating on channels to reduce the risk of planes, ships, and troops butting heads on an increasingly crowded map in the Asia-Pacific. 

The push to add more defense hotlines comes in the lead-up to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s trip to Singapore for what is known as the Shangri-La Dialogue, the top defense summit in the region, where U.S. and Chinese officials have traditionally gaggled on the sidelines. If a meeting comes together at the forum early next month, it could be a chance for the new administration’s second face-to-face with Beijing, after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan had a testy exchange with Chinese officials in March. 

But when Austin does get a chance to talk to his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, he hopes to prioritize crisis communications and risk reduction in areas such as the South China Sea, the official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. The idea is to create multiple avenues to communicate with Beijing to manage the growing strategic competition between the two powers and prevent the onset of a potential conflict, especially as the Chinese navy—the largest in the world—expands its reach further into the Indo-Pacific and is taking an increasingly belligerent posture in the Western Pacific.

Still, the Department of Defense is tempering its expectations, given Chinese reluctance in the past to engage in crisis management.

“The challenge is, in large part, that the Chinese have never been particularly receptive to doing things the way that the U.S. likes to do them,” the senior defense official said.

China has stepped up pressure on U.S. allies and partners in the Asia-Pacific in the last several months, including near-daily buzzing of Taiwanese and Japanese air defense zones, and the use of civilian fishing vessels to harden claims to disputed areas in the South and East China Seas, where the U.S. Navy conducts freedom of navigation operations. Just days after President Joe Biden took office, the USS Theodore Roosevelt carrier strike group sailed through the South China Sea, after China passed a law in January authorizing coast guard vessels to fire on foreign vessels seen as endangering Chinese sovereignty. And officials and experts expect U.S. and Chinese vessels to face more close calls, with China building more ships every year to overtake the U.S. Navy as the world’s largest.

The Biden administration has kept in place the high-level defense policy system that existed between U.S. and Chinese officials, who gathered in January 2020 to work on reducing risk in the Asia-Pacific and improving crisis communications between the two sides, according to a readout. In a lower-level dialogue, China and the United States last talked about improving safety between U.S. and Chinese naval and air forces two years ago, but China skipped the last round of talks, according to a second senior defense official, also speaking on condition of anonymity. 

But the desire for an improved hotline was thrust into the spotlight this week as Kurt Campbell, Asia head at the National Security Council, said that China should “rethink their previous ambivalence” to deconfliction. And the issue of China overstepping came to a head this week when a Chinese rocket and space station module passed within 200 miles of the International Space Station on launch before falling to earth this weekend.

Experts said any conflict between the United States and China would more likely emerge from sustained military escalation than an accidental clash of planes or ships. But some noted that the Biden administration’s push for a hotline could help mitigate criticism from Beijing or other Asia-Pacific countries likely to blame Washington for increasing tensions in the region. 

“If the United States continues to focus its attention on the Western Pacific, if it’s going to take steps to strengthen its military posture in the region, if it’s going to have China in its sights a bit more when it comes to defense modernization, inevitably that’s going to create some natural tension,” said Evan Montgomery, the director of research and studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington think tank. “One thing the pursuit of the hotline does at least optically is it helps to offset some of those criticisms.”

One of the models that officials looked at in the Trump administration was similar to U.S. deconfliction mechanisms with the Russians in Syria, which allowed both sides to warn each other when they crossed into rival airspace on either side of the Euphrates River in the war-torn country. Chinese officials have asked for updates and briefings on that model, a former senior defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.

The need for a new and improved mechanism to avoid accidental escalation has been self-evident for some on the American side, as well as elements in the Chinese navy. But China’s political culture remains a challenge. Instead of seeing a formal crisis communications channel as an insurance policy against a hot war, Chinese officials may view the guardrails as a sign the United States is willing to countenance greater military risks in the region.

“The Chinese perspective is that if I establish a crisis communication hotline with you, things can get lower and worse,” the former official said. “The lack of a net inherently moderates the policy risk that I might take.”

Others see China taking advantage of the Pentagon’s perceived fear of stumbling into wars the United States doesn’t want, in order to expand territorial claims in the region. 

“China can say, well, if you want to reduce the risk of an accident you should just not be here,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a center fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. “They also use that strategically to try and pressure the United States to reduce its military presence in the area.”

There are already a few existing mechanisms to ensure any encounters between U.S. and Chinese forces stay below the threshold of conflict, though they’re seldom used. A hotline between the United States and China established during the Clinton administration—after an eight-month crisis in the Taiwan Strait—went unused. Later, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and President Barack Obama agreed to establish further secure calling links to notify one another of military crises, but those, too, have sat idle.

“Even where mechanisms exist, they’re not fully utilized,” the second senior defense official said.

A more robust system could create channels of communication between U.S. Indo-Pacific Command and Chinese forces, as well as ways to defuse any interactions between U.S. and Chinese surface ships and aircraft, the current senior defense official said. Those channels could allow the United States and China to cooperate on areas such as humanitarian assistance and disaster relief as Chinese naval power expands further into the Indo-Pacific, the official added. 

But efforts to develop military-to-military hotlines have also been complicated by major structural differences between Pentagon and Chinese military operations in the region. China’s People’s Liberation Army, known as the PLA, which includes air and naval forces, was reorganized into five smaller theater commands in 2016 at Xi’s directive. These are only focused on China’s subregions, while U.S. Indo-Pacific Command covers the entire region. 

The second senior defense official said that the Pentagon has traditionally been challenged in developing hotlines to China because U.S. combatant commands are “not necessarily a natural partner to any element in the PLA.” There are at least three Chinese theater commands “that are substantially involved in issues that are of interest to us, probably all five for that matter,” the official added. 

Even if the Biden administration gets its hotline, large parts of the U.S.-China relationship will remain couched in ambiguity. Campbell, Biden’s top Asia hand, said this week that the United States would not reverse its policy of “strategic ambiguity” on Taiwan over whether the Pentagon would come to the defense of the island if it were under attack from China.

Some former Trump administration officials are hoping that the hotline gets done to give the new team experience in dealing with the Chinese military. “The less contact people have with the Chinese the more they form distorted views about the way the Chinese behave,” the former senior defense official said. 

But others worry that establishing a hotline to Beijing could stop the Biden administration from taking a consistent tack with China. 

“Is the message ‘China, don’t worry, we’re not trying to undermine your rise, we’re just friends here,’ or is the message ‘If you step out of line, then you’re going to be in trouble?’” said Skylar Mastro. “It’s really hard to communicate both messages at the same time.”

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