Zack Cooper & Jacob Stokes for War on the Rocks

September 30, 2020

For the last few months, U.S.-Chinese relations have seemed to plumb new depths almost daily. In one recent incident, Beijing fired anti-ship ballistic missiles into the South China Sea while U.S. aircraft watched. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper then warned that the United States “won’t cede an inch.” Tensions are growing around the typical maritime flashpoints — Taiwan, the East China Sea, and the South China Sea — and also over Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and a range of other security, economic, technology, and human rights issues.

To help manage these tensions and future crises, many experts have called for the creation of additional dialogues and crisis management mechanisms. Former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell and the Atlantic Council’s Ali Wyne note that the United States and China have “few guardrails in place to prevent misunderstandings or miscalculations from escalating” and propose “confidence-building measures” to manage these dynamics. George Washington University professor David Shambaugh calls for “communications mechanisms … to establish precise procedures to prevent, say, an accidental military encounter from escalating into full-scale war.” The Asia Society’s Orville Schell recommends an “emergency special summit dedicated to finding an off-ramp” to current tensions.

We agree with the need for better communications between the United States and China. The question that remains unclear, however, is which types of mechanisms would actually decrease the likelihood of conflict and avoid inadvertent escalation. Answering this question requires assessing what mechanisms already exist, explaining where they fall short, and asking whether new mechanisms would work better. This article starts to address these issues, providing some recommendations for improving crisis management along with a healthy dose of practical caution about what it will take for these efforts to succeed in their overarching goal of preventing conflict.

The Value (and Risks) of Crisis Management Mechanisms

Any conversation about crisis management mechanisms has to start with first principles about their intended purposes. Experts typically hope that these mechanisms can facilitate communications before and during a crisis, particularly when time plays a critical role. Prior to a crisis, these mechanisms can establish rules for military operations that make accidents or risky encounters less likely. They can also clarify capabilities and perceptions, thereby helping to avoid escalation by mitigating basic misunderstandings. Finally, during a crisis, these mechanisms can help leaders dispel misperceptions about their intentions and actions. Over time, many hope that these mechanisms can establish beneficial norms for both sides’ behavior, and maybe even become the basis for more formalized long-term agreements.

Although crisis management mechanisms might seem to be a classic opportunity for “win-win cooperation,” this is not always the case. Counterintuitively, crisis management mechanisms might sometimes encourage risk-taking. This logic was best explained by Thomas Schelling, who described how brinksmanship (including deterrence) often relies on the “threat that leaves something to chance.” Although crisis management mechanisms can constrain certain types of brinksmanship, this can paradoxically increase one party’s willingness to risk a crisis in the first place. In this way, decreasing the risk of escalation can incentivize risk-taking, particularly if it negates an adversary’s asymmetric advantage.

Critics might argue that crisis management mechanisms are still almost always beneficial. But despite all the talk of “mutually beneficial cooperation,” China’s leaders don’t seem to agree that more crisis management mechanisms are always better. After all, Beijing has resisted efforts to apply crisis management mechanisms to the two countries’ coast guards (or to China’s “maritime militia”). And China’s leaders have similarly avoided military, coast guard, and paramilitary agreements with nearly all of China’s neighbors, particularly weaker claimants in the South China Sea. One need look no further than the stalled code of conduct negotiations to see this pattern in action.

In short, Beijing has made crisis management mechanisms a priority in only one area with one country: direct, conventional conflict with the U.S. military. In other areas and with other countries, China’s leaders are happy to leverage the “threat that leaves something to chance” for coercive purposes. Take, for example, a recent report in the South China Morning Post, which suggested that Beijing told Chinese military officers “not to fire the first shot” in a crisis with the United States. If this is true, the reason is likely simple: Chinese leaders are worried they will not be able to control escalation in a conventional military conflict with the U.S. military and so they instituted a firebreak in their escalation ladder. Communist Party leaders do not want to hazard a major escalation if they do not feel confident about their ability to dial tensions up or down to fit their purposes. But Beijing is happy to give its forces a freer hand when dealing with less capable players because in those situations Chinese officials believe they can escalate or de-escalate at their discretion.

With this in mind, Beijing has agreed to a variety of crisis management mechanisms with the United States. These mechanisms generally fall into three categories: diplomatic channels, leadership hotlines, and military protocols. This article explores each category in turn before addressing whether, and how, these mechanisms could be updated to deal with current challenges.

Diplomatic Channels

Diplomatic communications, like the broader Sino-American bilateral relationship, have primarily been run out of the White House since the opening to China in the early 1970s. Those channels have seldom been formalized, but communications between the leaders themselves or their respective designees have played a major role in defusing crises. Leader-to-leader engagement is the ultimate crisis management mechanism. Below that level though, the channels have been more fluid, including arrangements between the National Security Council’s senior director for Asia and China’s ambassador in Washington. The U.S. ambassador typically plays a parallel role on the ground in Beijing.

For their part, the secretaries of state and defense have occasionally played a supporting role, especially during more formal dialogues such as the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue (formerly the Strategic and Economic Dialogue) and in sidebar meetings during major international fora. Analyzing their roles, however, requires some parsing of the distinction between quotidian diplomacy and crisis management. There is no arbiter of which activities fall into which category. Although crisis prevention often found its way onto agendas, the secretaries of state and defense contribute to crisis mechanisms mostly in the broad sense. They have rarely taken on a direct crisis management role (and neither, for that matter, have American or Chinese officials at the United Nations in New York).

Leadership Hotlines

The first image that comes to mind for most people when imagining a crisis management mechanism is something analogous to the misleading “red telephone” on the president’s desk that connected the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Such leader-to-leader hotlines have been tried in the U.S.-Chinese context, but have largely failed as bilateral crisis management mechanisms. In 1997, for example, President Bill Clinton and General Secretary Jiang Zemin agreed to set up such a hotline. But when U.S. forces mistakenly bombed the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade in 1999, the Chinese did not answer the call from their American counterparts. One of the outcomes of the Fifth Strategic and Economic Dialogue in 2013 was the announcement that the pair had agreed to establish “a hotline between the Special Representatives of the Presidents, in order to facilitate communication.” But it remains unclear whether that link ever came online.

Hotlines have been only marginally more successful at the military-to-military level. In 2008, both countries agreed to set up a formal hotline known as the Defense Telephone Link. Notably, current Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Chad Sbragia helped negotiate that agreement as a U.S. Marine attaché at the American embassy in Beijing. The Pentagon’s 2016 China military power report revealed that the hotline was used by the People’s Liberation Army to request a call with the chief of naval operations following U.S. operations in the South China Sea. Yet, as Robert Pape has noted, from its inception through 2014, the line was only used four times.

The United States and China have also tried to establish domain-specific hotlines. This includes one to handle space issues that was announced in 2015. It connects the U.S. Joint Space Operations Center and the Beijing Institute for Telecommunications and Tracking. Then-Assistant Secretary of State for Arms Control, Verification, and Compliance Frank Rose explained in 2015 how that connection sought to speed up and clarify communications, noting that: “Up until about nine or 10 months ago, we had to send notifications [of potential collisions, approaches, or tests] to the Chinese via their Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The chain would go from JSpOC [Joint Space Operations Center] to the Pentagon to the State Department, to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, and then on to a contact there.” Progress has proved more difficult in the cyber domain, however, despite a 2015 agreement. Hopes for a hotline seem to have fallen apart along with the rest of the high-profile cyber cooperation announced between the two countries. Overall, therefore, hotlines have proven to be promising in theory but ultimately fickle in managing crises — at least to date.

Military Protocols

Protocols between the countries’ militaries work through three core functions: setting out clear operating rules, providing notifications for military activities, and establishing communications channels at various military levels. Operational protocols for military-to-military interactions are perhaps the most well-developed category. In 2014, both countries joined 21 Pacific states as parties to the multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea agreement, a non-binding set of “rules of the road.” Washington and Beijing subsequently built on this progress by signing two additional memoranda of understanding on notifications of major military activities and rules of behavior for safety of air and maritime encounters.

Communications channels between the American and Chinese defense communities also include a variety of consultations, dialogues, and exchanges. These comprise talks held roughly annually, as agreed to under the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, the Defense Policy Coordination Talks, the Asia Pacific Security Dialogue, and the Army to Army Dialogue Mechanism. There are also occasional, one-off visits by senior military leaders. Perhaps the most prominent formal channel was the joint staff dialogue mechanism, which was agreed to in 2017 by then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford signed with then-Chief of the Chinese Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui (who was later purged in Xi’s “anti-corruption” campaign). That grouping lasted for all of one meeting, after which the Chinese side cancelled a 2018 installment to protest U.S. sanctions on the People’s Liberation Army’s Equipment Development Department. In 2018, following the Diplomatic and Security Dialogue, then-Secretary of Defense James Mattis announced that the two sides had “committed to finalizing a military-to-military crisis deconfliction and communication framework with China,” but it is not clear whether anything ever came of that effort.

Implementation Challenges

As this account makes clear, whether crisis management mechanisms accomplish their purposes depends on a number of factors. They run the gamut from narrow technical issues to broader matters of politics and policy. The first question that U.S. leaders should answer, therefore, is whether Beijing would actually agree to additional crisis management mechanisms. And second, whether establishing new mechanisms — or revamping existing mechanisms, for that matter — would actually be beneficial to crisis avoidance, escalation management, and U.S. interests more generally.

In considering these questions, a consistent challenge is finding the right balance between setting up domain- or task-specific hotlines — which, in theory, can facilitate more technically-oriented information exchanges — and streamlining communications to avoid wasting time in the midst of a crisis. Technical questions such as the communication medium and format also matter. The original U.S.-Soviet hotline was actually a teletype machine that would print out messages using text. The teletype was helpful because it eliminated the variable of leaders relying too heavily on real-time translation.

Although these technical challenges can likely be addressed, the political problems often prove much more difficult to solve. One major obstacle is finding the proper counterpart of U.S. officials in China. Some have called for a line that connects the U.S. National Security Council with China’s National Security Commission. That plan is flawed, however, because China’s National Security Commission focuses primarily on domestic security issues. Foreign policy and military crises mostly fall to the Central Military Commission, although the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, which was created in 2018, could also play a role.

That, of course, assumes China’s leaders would actually answer calls during an incident. Beijing has sometimes shut crisis communication links to display frustration over disagreements. For example, according to John Garnaut, a leading Australian analyst, China twice cut the Defense Phone Link for extensive periods in protest of U.S. actions. Some also worry that China might answer and purposely stall as a play for time during a crisis. Perhaps even more problematically, any decision not to answer the phone, or to answer but only say “We’ll get back to you,” may in part reflect fractured and diffuse decision-making processes within the leadership compound in Zhongnanhai. As former National Security Council senior director for Asia Evan Medeiros explained in a recent podcast, “Tell me what crisis in the U.S.-China relationship have these hotlines been useful because of the collective nature of the [Chinese] decision-making system. Hint: not many.”

Finally, as noted earlier, the most vexing challenge derives from Beijing’s penchant for relying on the manipulation of risk to gain advantages during tense moments. There is, for example, a longstanding debate about whether tactical aggression by Chinese units has been due to a lack of professionalism or discipline, or whether it is a concerted strategy to allow risk-taking with deniability. To the extent that escalation is aimed at getting an adversary to back down, crisis management efforts will have at best marginal benefits.

Crafting Crisis Management Mechanisms

For all the reasons described above, improving Sino-American crisis management mechanisms will be a difficult, if not thankless, endeavor. But there are steps American analysts and policymakers can take to improve the situation. The most important is for U.S. leaders to view the construction and improvement of crisis management mechanisms as inextricably strategic. As we have noted, China’s leaders already leverage crisis management mechanisms as strategic tools. The United States used to view them this way in the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union (recognizing, of course, the many differences between the Cold War and the current Sino-American competition). Thoughtfully crafting crisis management mechanisms therefore requires two lines of effort.

First, U.S. leaders need to gain as much information about how, exactly, high-level Chinese policymakers get information and whether the process changes during a crisis. Specifically, it will be important to get a better understanding for how information from diplomatic channels gets fed into military decision-making bodies (and vice versa), especially from the Central Foreign Affairs Commission into the Central Military Commission. One telling fact is that neither Yang Jiechi (China’s most senior foreign affairs official, who is a member of the Politburo and directs the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission) nor Wang Yi (state councilor and foreign minister) sit on the Central Military Commission. Such an assessment could therefore yield insights about who to connect with to have the best chance of influencing events during a crisis.

Second, if American policymakers pursue additional bilateral crisis management mechanisms, they should do so in areas that would restrain, rather than embolden, Beijing’s risky security behavior. Giving China’s leaders more confidence that the U.S. military will not escalate a crisis may actually encourage more risk-taking in the “gray zone” below conventional conflict. Similarly, as long as China avoids serious crisis management efforts with its neighbors, Beijing will have free rein to engage in brinksmanship against weaker parties. Therefore, expanding the scope of multilateral crisis management mechanisms should be a priority (and maybe even a precondition) for additional bilateral crisis management initiatives. To be clear, this is not a call for cutting off existing mechanisms or refusing to answer if the Chinese initiate contact during a crisis. But American policymakers should be realistic about crisis management mechanisms and avoid over-reliance on these tools when navigating tense situations with China.

In his recent history of U.S.-Chinese engagement since the 1970s, Orville Schell explains that when crises hit the relationship, Beijing expects Washington “to bear primary responsibility for remaining flexible enough to keep it together.” The era of lopsided crisis management should not persist. China and the United States will have to jointly shoulder the burden of avoiding war. As Kurt Campbell noted in a recent podcast, “These mechanisms are only valuable if the other side is prepared to sit down and talk, and for a variety of reasons, [the Chinese] have not been.” As U.S. leaders consider establishing new crisis management mechanisms, they should therefore keep in mind this history and remember that although crisis management mechanisms are potentially useful, they do not always amount to “win-win cooperation.” As China’s leaders have made clear, crisis management is inherently strategic, so crisis management mechanisms should account for geopolitical realities.

acob Stokes is a senior policy analyst in the China program at the United States Institute of Peace. He has served as an advisor in the White House, the U.S. Senate, and the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission. The views expressed here are strictly his own.

Zack Cooper is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. He previously served on staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the National Security Council.

Image: U.S. Navy (Photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Rob Aylward)

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