Close encounters require US-China military talks

Published 11:15 am Tuesday, November 7, 2023

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US officials have announced that the President will meet Xi Jinping in San Francisco later this month, the first such meeting in a year. No issue is more urgent to discuss than resuming meetings of the two countries’ top military brass. The reason is simple: The US and China have had dangerously close encounters in the air and at sea, all occurring in the South China Sea (SCS) area at the same time that Chinese military aircraft are almost daily flying close to Taiwan.
The Pentagon lists more than 180 times in the past two years during which US and Chinese jets have narrowly avoided collisions, all due – the Pentagon says – to “coercive and risky” maneuvering by the Chinese. Whether or not the fault lies entirely with China, as was the case in 2001 when a US navy intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese jet, precipitating a crisis in relations, the danger is evident.
So is the underlying problem: the lack of military-to-military communications between the US and China – a situation that has existed ever since former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s ill-advised trip to Taiwan a year and a half ago. The Chinese have consistently rejected every US proposal to restart talks.
In the past, the US and China have had three channels for military discussions: annual talks between senior officials, the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement on aerial issues, and the Defense Policy Coordination Talks on crisis management. None of those channels is open now, creating a communications gap that is also relevant to another situation in the South China Sea (SCS) that could involve the US: the dangerous encounters between Philippines and Chinese ships in waters claimed by both countries, but which seem indisputably to belong to the Philippines.
The Dangerous Philippines-China Confrontations
The Chinese have amassed quite an armada of heavily armed coast guard vessels and other ships to block Filipino ships from supplying a sunken vessel on one shoal that symbolizes their claim. Now two minor collisions have occurred.
The US has no territorial claim in the SCS area, but it is a security partner of the Philippines and is engaged in joint air and sea patrols there. For a third time in recent weeks, the US has indicated that it will come to the aid of the Philippines if it or its forces are attacked, most recently when the President, on Oct. 25, invoked the 1951 security treaty with the Philippines and said the US commitment to its defense was “ironclad.”
A Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson said the US “has no right to get involved in a problem between China and the Philippines.” The Philippines leader, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., calls China a bully. He has just shown how far relations with China have fallen by withdrawing the Philippines from involvement in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Restoring Military Talks
Given US involvement in the Middle East and Ukraine, a confrontation with China in the SCS is the last thing the Biden administration needs. Military-to-military talks are essential for mutual security. Without them, a violent incident is almost certain to happen.
The prospects for such talks have improved with Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Washington last week. Pres. Biden said the two countries “need to manage competition in the relationship responsibly and maintain open lines of communication.”
Wang Yi, preparing the way for Xi’s visit, said his goal was to “stabilize China-US relations,” but also said that won’t be easy. Yet both countries have good reason to avoid a miscalculation in the SCS, not to mention in the Taiwan Strait.
(Mel Gurtov, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University and blogs at In the Human Interest.)

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