US-China military hotlines are reopening to prevent things like risky run-ins from triggering a full-blown crisis

  • The US and China will resume military-to-military communications, Biden announced Wednesday.

  • The Pentagon had previously reported silence from Chinese military officials, raising concerns.

  • The US and Chinese militaries often operate in close proximity to one another, and there have been some risky run-ins.

The US and China are resuming military-to-military communications, the US and China said Wednesday after more than year of mostly radio silence.

The decision is a move in the right direction, creating a path for communication and de-escalation as the two militaries often operate in close proximity, necessities amid a spike in risky behaviors from Chinese pilots that could quickly escalate into a crisis. Still, tensions between the two military powers remain, with relations still uneasy in a number of areas.

On Wednesday, President Joe Biden and leader of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping had a four-hour meeting in San Francisco, discussing a range of issues from the serious influx of fentanyl from China into the US to American expectations that China help curb malign behavior actors like Iran in the Middle East.

Their discussions weren’t necessarily as successful as hoped, but the two did reach an agreement to resume military-to-military communications, meaning open lines between Department of Defense (DoD) officials and the PLA on a variety of topics, from crisis management to strategic and operational movements.

The White House said in a readout “the two leaders welcomed the resumption of high-level military-to-military communication, as well as the U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks and the U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings, adding that “both sides are also resuming telephone conversations between theater commanders.”

China also reported in a release that the two sides are “restoring high-level communication between the two militaries on the basis of equality and respect.”

China officially severed these communications in August 2022 following former Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s high-profile visit to Taiwan; however, a recently released Pentagon report on the Chinese military indicates that ties were strained throughout most of that year and into 2023 as well.

A lack of communication is especially concerning given the documented increase in risky and dangerous behavior by Chinese pilots, who have conducted numerous unsafe intercepts of US and allied aircraft.

“The PLA’s refusal to engage in military-to-military communications with the United States, combined with the PLA’s increasingly coercive and risky operational behavior, raises the risk of an operational incident or miscalculation spiraling into crisis or conflict,” DoD officials wrote in its latest report on the Chinese People’s Liberation Army.

USINDOPACOM said the video the Chinese J-11 fighter pilot “executed an unsafe intercept” of a US Air Force B-52 aircraft in late October.USINDOPACOM

The spike in risky and dangerous intercepts reported by US officials began before China officially cut off mil-to-mil comms. Since the fall of 2021, the DoD has documented more than 180 such incidents of Chinese fighters flying alongside, over, and underneath US aircraft at unsafe speeds and close distances, sometimes just 10 or 15 feet.

“That’s nearly 200 cases where PLA operators have performed reckless maneuvers or discharged chaff or shot off flares or approached too rapidly or too close to US aircraft,” Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs told reporters at the Pentagon in October. And in the same time window, the US has documented around 100 such incidents involving allied and partner nations.

There have been more incidents “in the past two years than in the previous decade,” the Pentagon report says, and for a period of time, the phone lines weren’t open. The situation is less than ideal if something were to occur like the 2001 Hainan Island incident, when a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided with a US EP-3 aircraft during an unsafe intercept over the South China Sea, destroying the Chinese jet, killing its pilot, and forcing the American plane to land in Chinese territory.

The DoD recently declassified a large collection of photos and videos it says shows the unsafe intercepts described in reports and by officials.

The most recent such incident involved a Chinese fighter jet buzzing a US B-52 bomber over the South China Sea in late October. US Indo-Pacific Command released a video of the nighttime intercept, saying “the PRC pilot flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner, demonstrated poor airmanship by closing with uncontrolled excessive speed, flying below, in front of, and within 10 feet of the B-52, putting both aircraft in danger of collision.”

Some of these intercepts, like the B-52 bomber, likely demonstrate the PLA’s willingness to challenge US airpower, as well as test its response, aviation experts have said.

US China risky intercept

A Chinese fighter jet conducting “a coercive and risky” intercept of a US aircraft over the South China Sea in June 2022.US Defense Department

As Biden noted after the meeting with China’s Xi, the goal of re-establishing military-to-military links is to promote “clear and open communication between our defense establishments,” which “is vital to avoid miscalculation by either side and prevent conflict.” DoD officials, too, have said opening lines between the US and China would “ensure competition does not veer into conflict.”

But reopened comms may not be enough to fully ease tensions in the US-China relationship, which are significantly strained. Just after Wednesday’s pivotal meeting, Biden said he still believed Xi was a dictator.

“Well, look, he’s a dictator in the sense that he is a guy who runs a country that is a communist country that’s based on a form of government totally different than ours,” Biden told CNN’s MJ Lee. “Anyway, we made progress.”

On Thursday, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson called the president’s comment “extremely erroneous” and an “irresponsible political maneuver, which China firmly opposes.”

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