China’s shutdown of several lines of military communication with the U.S. has left a heightened risk of dangerous miscalculation even after the conclusion of Beijing’s weeklong military drills around Taiwan, experts say.
China’s Foreign Ministry announced eight countermeasures in response to the visit to Taiwan by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who has a long record of challenging Beijing on democracy and human rights.
The measures announced last week included cancellation of three key bilateral military talks: the China-U.S. Theater Commanders Talk, the China-U.S. Defense Policy Coordination Talks and meetings on the China-U.S. Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, which focuses on issues of maritime safety at
Beijing also ramped up its retaliation with military action following Pelosi’s visit, and it sanctioned the House speaker and her family.
Washington said canceling bilateral military dialogues while tension is high was “irresponsible,” and China hit back saying the move was a “necessary warning to the provocations from the U.S. and Taiwan region.”
Shirley Kan, an adviser to the Global Taiwan Institute and a former specialist in Asian security affairs at the Congressional Research Service, told VOA Mandarin that cutting off communication at a time of crisis is “reckless.”
In an emailed response to VOA Mandarin, Kan set out why she believes Beijing canceled the talks.
“The reason is because the weaker PLA [People’s Liberation Army] must defer to the Communist Party of China’s secretary-general, who is in control of communication with foreign countries,” she wrote. “But the PLA still should be mature enough to use open lines of communication with the Pentagon in a crisis.”
China’s leader, Xi Jinping, has been the secretary-general since 2012, and he is likely to be re-elected to the office this fall at the National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
While condemning China’s decision to cut off communication, the White House’s National Security Council communications coordinator, John Kirby, noted there are still channels of communication remaining open between American and Chinese military officials.
“Bottom line is we’re going to continue our efforts to keep opening lines of communication that are protecting our interests and our values,” Kirby said in a briefing last week.
Jacob Stokes, a fellow for the Indo-Pacific Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, D.C., told VOA Mandarin the canceled talks are the lower-level dialogues that are “generally more scripted and are more effective at building mutual understanding over time.”
“As the NSC’s John Kirby noted, not all military-to-military communications have been cut off. The ones that remain are high level,” he told VOA Mandarin in an email. “By my count, communication channels between Biden and Xi, between Jake Sullivan and Yang Jiechi, between Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, and between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and PLA Chief of the Joint Staff Department Gen. Li Zuocheng are all possibly still functioning.”
Shortly before cutting off the military dialogues, China on August 4 launched a multi-day live-fire drill encircling Taiwan. The exercise included firing ballistic missiles and conducting exercises to organize a blockade around Taiwan. China’s state-owned media CGTN said the drill by the PLA, involved personnel from the Army, Navy, Air Force, Rocket Force and Strategic Support Force.
The PLA last held such a drill in 1996, aiming to send a signal to then-Taiwan President Lee Teng-hui for moving away from the “One China” policy — Beijing's position that there is only one Chinese government, and the self-governing island of Taiwan is a breakaway province.
On Wednesday, the PLA signaled an end to the drill, three days later than originally scheduled. Also on Wednesday, China’s Taiwan Affairs Office reaffirmed Beijing's threat to use military force to bring self-ruling Taiwan under its control.
“We will always be ready to respond with the use of force or other necessary means to interference by external forces or radical action by separatist elements. Our ultimate goal is to ensure the prospects of China’s peaceful reunification and advance this process,” according to an English-language version of the PLA’s Chinese statement.
“China’s actions are clearly designed to increase the risk and spark concerns in Taipei, Washington, and other relevant capitals. China has created a crisis as a means of punishing Taiwan and the United States for Speaker Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan,” Stokes told VOA Mandarin, adding that Beijing’s key goal is to convey the message that “such visits are risky.”
Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst at the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, told VOA Mandarin in a phone interview that Beijing’s crisis management mechanism is to deliberately keep its intention vague during a crisis.
She explained Beijing’s calculation in this way: “If I don't tell you the limit to those risks, I will have a much stronger deterrent effect on your actions. By leaving it unknown and uncertain, there's a greater chance that I can deter you because it will influence your calculations, it will cause you to think twice about sending more aircraft or naval vessels into the area.”
She also pointed out there’s a cost in doing so.
“We're in particularly fraught moments in the bilateral relationship. There's a tendency to be hostile toward each other,” Hsiao continued. “The potential to miscalculate and misinterpret each other's actions is high. And so, under this political environment, the chances of an unintended collision escalating are high.”