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A Military Hotline Would Mean Little

Richard Weitz

When General Peter Pace of the Marines, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Beijing last month, his Chinese hosts expressed interest in a long-standing U.S. proposal to establish a direct communications link between the two defense establishments for use in a crisis. Although unobjectionable, a military hotline would contribute little to overcome the persistent differences in how the United States and Chinese defense establishments respond to emergencies.

The apparent change in Chinese policy follows two major incidents in recent months. On Oct. 26, 2006, the U.S. and Chinese navies nearly engaged in a direct clash near Okinawa when a Chinese submarine unexpectedly surfaced within five miles of the aircraft carrier Kitty Hawk. Fortunately, the U.S. Navy flotilla was not conducting anti-submarine exercises at the time, which could have led to an actual exchange of fire.

Another incident occurred in January 2007 when China destroyed one of its own satellites. Despite pressure from the United States, Japan, and other countries with space-based assets at risk from the anti-satellite test, the Chinese government refused to confirm the operation for two weeks. Pace raised the issue during his trip, but received no additional details about the test or China’s intent in undertaking it.

Neither the submarine incident nor the anti-satellite test disrupted the expansion in military exchanges. Previous clashes had abruptly ended attempts at constructing a sustained defense dialogue. The de facto Chinese-U.S. alliance during the late Cold War collapsed following the Soviet military implosion and Beijing’s brutal 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. The attempt by the Clinton administration to renew defense diplomacy with Beijing halted in 1999 when NATO accidentally bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade.

The 2001 collision between a U.S. Navy EP-3 surveillance plane and a Chinese warplane derailed whatever plans the new Bush administration might have had about resuming defense engagement with China. It was not until the then secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, visited China in October 2005 that the two sides re-launched large-scale military exchanges.

China has repeatedly rejected U.S. proposals that both sides regularly notify each other of their naval operations. Such confidence-building measures could have averted the submarine incident. The 1998 China-U.S. Maritime Military Consultation Agreement, unlike a similar agreement between Washington and Moscow, does not specify procedures for how the two countries’ armed forces should respond in unanticipated encounters.

Concerns that improved transparency could provide U.S. intelligence with insights into China’s defense vulnerabilities represent a major reason for Beijing’s past aversion to negotiating comprehensive operational arms control agreements with Washington. Chinese policy makers are also influenced by a doctrinal heritage that lauds strategic deception as a means to complicate the planning of possible military opponents.

These considerations had impeded American, Japanese, and other foreign efforts to persuade Beijing to provide more information about its military capabilities, intentions, and procedures. When a U.S. military delegation visited China in March 2006, their hosts again showed them Cold War-era planes and warships rather than Beijing’s latest weapons.

The Chinese government’s behavior following the apparently unanticipated negative reaction to its anti-satellite test suggests how Chinese leaders would probably respond to another major political-military crisis, regardless of the establishment of a defense hotline. Despite the existence of numerous mechanisms for dialogue, including those at the United Nations as well as through embassies and media outlets, Chinese officials responded as usual—with silence, denial, and obfuscation.

A defense hotline will not address the deeper sources of the security differences. Even with its creation, a confrontation over Taiwan, Japan’s defense restructuring, or some other issue could easily again freeze their bilateral military relations.

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