After months of delays, the Pentagon and China’s People’s Liberation Army last week initiated their first direct contact since Biden took office. That meeting, a video call carried by the U.S.-PRC Defense Telephone Link, focused on “maintaining open channels of communication between the two militaries.”
It’s a step. But former senior U.S. military officials warn that better, and more regular, means of communication are necessary to prevent a possible future confrontation between U.S. and Chinese military forces in the Indo-Pacific region.
“There should be a sense of urgency about this,” said retired Adm. Scott Swift, former commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Swift said unpredictable “triggers” may fuel a U.S.-China military conflict that could overwhelm current bilateral crisis communication systems.
Past experience underscores the fragility of those links. In the hours following the June 4, 1989 massacre of Beijing citizens by Chinese troops dispatched to crush the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy demonstrations, then-President George H.W. Bush urgently tried to call China’s then-paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. “But he was unable to get through,” Bush’s National Security Advisor Brent Scowcroft recalled.
History repeated itself 12 years later when Admiral Joseph W. Prueher, then U.S. ambassador in Beijing, urgently tried to contact China’s Foreign Ministry about the collision of a Chinese fighter jet and a U.S. Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane in April 2001 off China’s Hainan Island.
“They didn’t answer my phone call,” said Prueher. “They didn’t want to talk to us yet.” Prueher had to wait another 12 hours for the Foreign Ministry to open discussions on resolving the crisis.
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