With US-China relations at their lowest point and decades, an accident between the two nations’ militaries could easily spark a full-blown war. US warships and warplanes are constantly operating near China’s coast, and that activity is increasing, making a miscalculation more likely.
Recognizing the sensitive situation, although not enough to reduce forces in the region, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday said a communication line with China is crucial in case an accident happens.
“I’m concerned about something that could happen that could spark a crisis and I think we need the ability to be able to talk with both our allies and partners but also our adversaries or potential adversaries,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There needs to be a direct line of communication between the military and also between government officials as well.”
Austin has been trying to speak with China’s top military official but has not been having much luck. He reportedly made three failed attempts to talk with Xu Qiliang, the vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission. Chinese sources told The South China Morning Post that Austin didn’t receive a return call because he didn’t ask for the right official. The sources said Austin should have asked for Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, who is technically Austin’s counterpart.
Beijing has its reasons to be hesitant to engage with high-level Biden administration officials. Especially now, after Austin’s Pentagon declared China is the top “pacing challenge” facing the US military. On Wednesday, Austin ordered the military to start acting like China is the top “threat” based on the recommendations of a China task force.