Top Chinese military officials have not returned multiple calls from their American counterparts this week as a crisis erupted in the Pacific over House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, according to three people with knowledge of the attempts.
Beijing’s ghosting of Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chair Gen. Mark Milley comes as China continues launching missiles and positioning warships and aircraft in unprecedented military drills around Taiwan. Officials and experts say China’s silence is a shortsighted and reckless move that increases the risk of escalation in an already tense situation.
“If the [Chinese military] is operating more aggressively, and in closer proximity to U.S. forces with greater frequency, we’d need these mechanisms even more to promote a safe operating environment,” said Randy Schriver, who served as the top Pentagon official for Asia policy in the Trump administration.
U.S. military leaders strive to maintain open lines of communication even with potential adversaries such as China to prevent accidents and other miscalculations that could turn into a full-blown conflict.
But the last call Milley had with his Chinese counterpart, Chief of the Joint Staff Gen. Li Zuocheng, was on July 7, the Pentagon said. The two spoke by secure video teleconference about the need to maintain open lines of communication, as well as reducing risk, according to a readout from Milley’s office. Austin, meanwhile, met in person with Chinese Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe in June on the sideline of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
“The secretary has repeatedly emphasized the importance of fully open lines of communication with China’s defense leaders to ensure that we can avoid any miscalculations, and that remains true,” Todd Breasseale, the Pentagon’s acting press secretary, told POLITICO in an email.
China on Friday announced that it was halting certain official dialogues between senior-level U.S. military commanders, including the regional commanders, as well as talks on maritime safety. The announcement does not specifically apply to Austin and Milley’s counterparts, and officials said they are still open to communication between those leaders.
White House spokesperson John Kirby said while the announcement “does not completely eliminate the opportunities for senior members of our military to talk,” it increases the risk of an accident.
“These lines of communications are actually important for helping you reduce the risk of miscalculation and misperception,” Kirby said Friday. “You have this much military hardware operating in confined areas, it’s good, especially now, to have those lines of communication open.”
China is conducting military drills around Taiwan that have broken multiple precedents and fundamentally changed the status quo in the region. Beijing this week launched missiles into Taiwan’s territory, including at least one that appears to have flown over the island, and has sortied ships and aircraft across the median line separating Taiwan’s territorial waters from mainland China.
The U.S., which does not officially recognize Taiwan’s independence but sells weapons to the island, wants to avoid a situation such as on April 1, 2001, when a U.S. Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter collided in mid-air, prompting an international dispute.
The risk of such an incident is increasingly high. China has recently ramped up aggressive activity in the Pacific, particularly the East and South China seas, alarming U.S. officials. Chinese aircraft and ships have buzzed and harassed U.S. and allied pilots, even conducting an “unsafe” intercept with a U.S. special operations C-130 aircraft in June.
Yet canceling military dialogue is significant, but not unprecedented, experts said.
“Historically this is definitely part of the playbook,” Schriver said. “Mil-mil [communications] historically is on the chopping block when we have problems with China.”
But Kirby condemned the move as “irresponsible” at a time of escalating tensions.
“We find the shutting down of military communications channels at whatever level and whatever scope and at a time of crisis to be an irresponsible Act,” Kirby said.