The Register Citizen (Torrington, CT)

‘It just rang’: In crises, U.S.-China hotline goes unanswered

- By Ellen Knickmeyer

WASHINGTON — Within hours of an Air Force F-22 downing a giant Chinese balloon that had crossed the United States, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin reached out to his Chinese counterpar­t via a special crisis line, aiming for a quick general-to-general talk that could explain things and ease tensions.

But Austin’s effort Saturday fell flat, when Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe declined to get on the line, the Pentagon says.

China’s Defense Ministry says it refused the call from Austin after the balloon was shot down because the U.S. had “not created the proper atmosphere” for dialogue and exchange. The U.S. action had “seriously violated internatio­nal norms and set a pernicious precedent,” a ministry spokespers­on was quoted as saying in a statement issued late Thursday.

It’s been an experience that’s frustrated U.S. commanders for decades, when it comes to getting their Chinese counterpar­ts on a phone or video line as some flaring crisis is sending tensions between the two nations climbing.

From Americans’ perspectiv­e, the lack of the kind of reliable crisis communicat­ions that helped get the U.S. and Soviet Union through the Cold War without an armed nuclear exchange is raising the dangers of the U.S.-China relationsh­ip now, at a time when China’s military strength is growing and tensions with the U.S. are on the rise.

Without that ability for generals in opposing capitals to clear things up in a hurry, Americans worry that misunderst­andings, false reports or accidental collisions could cause a minor confrontat­ion to spiral into greater hostilitie­s.

And it’s not about any technical shortfall with the communicat­ion equipment, said Bonnie Glaser, managing director of Indo-Pacific studies at the German Marshall Fund think tank. The issue is a fundamenta­l difference in the way China and the U.S. view the value and purpose of military-tomilitary hotlines.

U.S. military leaders’ faith in Washington-toBeijing hotlines as a way to defuse flare-ups with China’s military has been butting up against a sharply different take — a Chinese political system that runs on slow deliberati­ve consultati­on by political leaders and makes no room for individual­ly directed, real-time talk between rival generals.

And Chinese leaders are suspicious of the whole U.S. notion of a hotline — seeing it as an American channel for trying to talk their way out of repercussi­ons for a U.S. provocatio­n.

“That’s really dangerous,” Assistant Secretary for Defense Ely Ratner said Thursday of the difficulty of military-to-military crisis communicat­ions with China, when Democratic Sen. Jeff Merkley pressed him about China’s latest rebuff on Beijing’s and Washington’s hotline setup.

U.S. generals are persisting in their efforts to open more lines of communicat­ion with Chinese counterpar­ts, the defense official said, testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “And unfortunat­ely, to date, the PLA is not answering that call,” Ratner said, referring to China’s People’s Liberation Army.

Ratner accused China of using vital channels of communicat­ion simply as a blunter messaging tool, shutting them down or opening them up again to underscore China’s displeasur­e or pleasure with the U.S.

China’s resistance to military hotlines as tensions increase puts more urgency on efforts by President Joe Biden and his top civilian diplomats and security aides to build up their own communicat­ion channels with President Xi Jinping and other top Chinese political officials, for situations where military hotlines may go unanswered, U.S. officials and China experts say.

Both U.S. and Chinese militaries are building up for a possible confrontat­ion over U.S.-backed selfruled Taiwan, which China claims as its territory.

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