In a significant breakthrough, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have reached an agreement to resume high-level military communication between the two nations. The announcement came after the leaders met face-to-face for the first time in over a year on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference in San Francisco. This renewed effort towards direct, open, and clear communication marks a positive step towards easing tensions and preventing potential misunderstandings between the world’s two most influential powers.
A History of Escalating Tensions
The need for reestablishing military communication between the United States and China became increasingly apparent as several near-miss incidents occurred between their respective naval forces. Chinese military exercises around Taiwan and aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea raised concerns about territorial claims and the potential for conflict. President Biden emphasized the importance of avoiding vital miscalculations that could lead to dire consequences. The resumption of military talks aims to mitigate the risk of such incidents and promote stability in the region.
Efforts to revive military communication faced obstacles in the past. In February, China’s Defense Ministry declined a call with its U.S. counterpart following the discovery of an alleged Chinese spy balloon over U.S. airspace. This incident significantly delayed U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to China. Additionally, the absence of a Chinese defense minister since the dismissal of Gen. Li Shangfu in October raised uncertainties about the future of military dialogue. However, the senior Biden administration official confirmed that U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin would meet with his Chinese counterpart once the new defense chief is selected.
Under the new agreement, senior U.S. military commanders, including Pacific forces in Hawaii, will engage with their Chinese counterparts. The establishment of channels for ship drivers and other personnel to discuss incidents and share best practices is also part of the plan. These mechanisms aim to foster trust, enhance understanding, and prevent misunderstandings that could escalate tensions. Both countries aspire to conduct these engagements on the basis of equality and respect, as emphasized by Chinese state media.
The resumption of military communication does not imply a change in the U.S.’s One-China policy or its recognition of Taiwan’s sovereignty. President Biden reiterated this stance, asserting that the U.S. will maintain its agreement with China. Chinese state media reported that President Xi highlighted Taiwan as the “most important and sensitive” issue in China-U.S. relations. He called upon the U.S. to demonstrate its commitment to not supporting Taiwan’s independence, cease arming the island, and support China’s reunification efforts. The U.S.’s recognition of Beijing as the sole government of China while maintaining unofficial relations with Taiwan remains unchanged.
The Biden-Xi summit covered a range of issues beyond military communication. The two leaders agreed to establish an intergovernmental dialogue on artificial intelligence and a working group on drug control. Efforts to increase flights between the two countries and expand exchanges in areas such as education, business, and culture were also discussed. Both sides acknowledged the need to address the production of fentanyl, an addictive drug that has caused overdoses and deaths in the U.S. However, agreement on artificial intelligence was deemed premature, with a cautious approach required to prevent misuses of AI in military and nuclear operations.
The meeting also touched upon contentious matters. President Xi addressed the U.S.’s export controls, investment reviews, and sanctions imposed on Chinese companies. He called for the lifting of these sanctions and the provision of a non-discriminatory environment for Chinese firms. President Biden raised concerns about travel harassment of Americans in China and the declining business environment. While these issues were acknowledged, the overall tone of the meeting was described as more personal and constructive than previous encounters between the two leaders.
The resumption of high-level military communication between the United States and China represents a significant step towards deescalating tensions and promoting stability in the Asia-Pacific region. By prioritizing direct and open dialogue, the two nations aim to prevent misunderstandings, build trust, and establish channels for effective crisis management. While challenges and differing perspectives remain, the commitment to communication and cooperation offers hope for a more peaceful and constructive relationship between these global powerhouses.