In today’s era of strategic competition between the United States and China, preventing crises in the Indo-Pacific from escalating into conflict is more important than ever and effective mechanisms are needed.

China has engaged in numerous dialogues and negotiations on developing crisis communication mechanisms with other countries. However, few formal mechanisms have been implemented. And those that have been agreed to — such as the U.S.-China Defense Telephone Link established in 2008 — have proven unreliable.

Despite these past realities, can comprehensive crisis communications mechanisms help prevent unwanted escalation in the region? What kinds of mechanisms between China and its regional neighbors exist and how effective have they been? Are there lessons to be shared? To answer these questions, USIP is examining crisis communication mechanisms and negotiations between China and its regional neighbors to identify common issues and themes that can be shared across countries. The initial case studies under examination are China’s bilateral mechanisms and negotiations with India, Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

PACIFIC OCEAN (July 28, 2016) The littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) and the Chinese Navy guided-missile destroyer Xian (153) transit in formation during Rim of the Pacific 2016.
PACIFIC OCEAN (July 28, 2016) The littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) and the Chinese Navy guided-missile destroyer Xian (153) transit in formation during Rim of the Pacific 2016.

Expert Analysis

China-India Crisis Communications Mechanisms

Potential Flashpoints Covered by a Mechanism

Most crisis communications mechanisms cover potential conflict between ground forces near the line of actual control (LAC). To note, the LAC does not reflect borders claimed by each country, but instead divides Indian-controlled territory from Chinese-controlled territory. Certain mechanisms, such as the foreign minister hotline agreed upon in 2021, could also be used during naval conflicts, likely in the Indian ocean, or in air conflicts.

Existing Crisis Communications Mechanisms

  • Commander-level military hotlines: To date, six military hotlines have been established between ground commanders along the LAC. As of 2021, there are two hotlines each in Ladakh, Arunachal Pradesh, and Sikkim. A spokesperson for the Indian Army said, “These hotlines in various sectors go a long way in enhancing [the communication between ground level commanders] and maintaining peace and tranquility at the border.” The most recent hotline, which was established in 2021, was inaugurated with a “message of friendship and harmony” exchanged between ground commanders.

    Status: Notionally active. No reported uses since a test in 2021.

  • High-level military hotline: A hotline between India’s director general of military operations and China’s Western Theatre Command was notionally agreed upon in 2020. India’s army chief announced that the proposal for such a hotline had been accepted and that it would soon become operational. However, that was before the skirmishes at Galwan in 2020.

    Status: Likely unestablished. No reported use since announcement.

  • Foreign minister hotline: In 2021, the Indian minister of external affairs released a statement that India and China had agreed to establish a hotline between foreign ministers. The hotline is meant to assist in reducing tensions along the disputed border.

    Status: Notionally active. No reported use since establishment.

  • Border Personnel Meetings (BPMs): These meetings have occurred at several locations between military officers or delegations since 2013. At present, there are five reported BPM points: two in Ladakh, two in Arunachal Pradesh, and one in Sikkim. Certain meetings are purely ceremonial, while others serve as a conflict resolution and information-sharing mechanism.

    Status: Active. 19th round of corps commander-level meeting was held in August 2023.

  • India-China Corps Commander Level Meetings (CCLMs): These meetings have taken place near the LAC since June 2020 to ease ongoing border tensions. The talks were a direct response to clashes in the Galwan Valley in May 2020. Despite the first talks on June 6, 2020, another violent clash broke out on June 16, 2020, leading to the first casualties along the LAC since 1975. CCLMs typically include military leaders from both sides and periodically have included the inspector general of India’s Indo-Tibetan Border Police. Past CCLMs have been led by India’s 14th Corp commander and China’s South Xinjiang Military District chief, among others. These meetings are seen as an opportunity to exchange perspectives and keep communication open during the ongoing disputes.

    Status: Active. 19th round of corps commander-level meeting was held in August 2023.

  • Working Mechanism for Consultation and Coordination on China-India border affairs (WMCC): This mechanism was established in 2012 by joint agreement. The WMCC aims to “deal with important border affairs related to maintaining peace and tranquility in the India-China border areas.” It is headed by a joint secretary-level official from India’s Ministry of External Affairs and a director general-level official from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and is composed of diplomatic and military officials from both sides. The WMCC specifically does not discuss the resolution of the boundary question, but instead focuses on the “communication of timely information,” “appropriately handling border incidents,” and “undertaking other cooperation activities in the India-China border areas.” In accordance with the joint agreement, the mechanism holds consultations once or twice every year alternately in India and China, as well as on an ad hoc basis during emergencies with the agreement of both sides.

    Status: Active. 26th meeting was held in February 2023.

Potential Weaknesses of Existing Mechanisms

Most existing mechanisms are specific to border disputes near the LAC. While they may be responsive to melee clashes along the border, they do not cover other military crises such as ship or aircraft collisions. Some sort of agreement on incidents at sea, for example, is desperately needed. Furthermore, both the CCLM and WMCC are convened mechanisms which are not conducive for rapid information sharing in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. While a number of hotlines remain notionally active, little information is available regarding their use during actual crises. China’s disregard of existing U.S.-China hotlines, most recently during U.S. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in 2022 and the high-altitude balloon incident in 2023, paint an unhopeful picture for similar China-India mechanisms. Beijing also ignored calls from Manila during the Second Thomas Shoal standoff in August 2023 when vessels from the China Coast Guard used water cannons to prevent the resupply of the BRP Sierra Madre by the Philippine Navy and Coast Guard.

Problems Affecting China-India Crisis Communications Negotiations and Implementation

  • Historical legacies: Border disputes have existed since before the foundation of the Republic of India in 1947 and the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Positions on both sides have hardened over time in light of violence on the border, rising nationalism in both countries, and great power competition.
  • Reassurance over resolution: Both China and India ostensibly want to avoid conflict over their border to focus on cooperation in areas that are mutually beneficial. However, this has led to a stasis of reassuring behavior instead of meaningful attempts to resolve the disputes once and for all. Moreover, there is an asymmetry in stakes and commitments for the two sides.

China-Japan Crisis Communications Mechanisms 

Potential Flashpoints Covered by a Mechanism

Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, Taiwan and Okinawan Islands (in the event of a military incident involving China and Taiwan, the nearby islands of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture could be affected). 

Past Crisis Communications Mechanism

Agreed to by Jiang Zemin and Keizo Obuchi in 1998 during a leader-level meeting, a leader-level hotline existed between China and Taiwan from 2000-2010. Launched in 2000 but unutilized due to political tensions, the hotline was terminated in 2010

Existing Crisis Communication Mechanism

Maritime and Air Communication Mechanism (MACM) consisting of three parts: craft to craft communication, meetings and defense hotlines.

  • Craft to craft communication: Launched in 2018, the two counties have established direct communication channels between military vessels and aircraft in English using agreed common frequencies in line with the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea and the Convention on International Civil Aviation, to which both are party.
  • Meetings: Launched in 2018, the two sides hold annual meetings between defense authorities.
  • Defense authorities’ hotline: In May 2023, the Chinese and Japanese defense ministers inaugurated a hotline between them with a 20 minute phone conversation. The Japanese ministry of defense press release noted that the two sides “confirmed that the hotline will be operated appropriately and reliably.”
Maritime Air and Communication Mechanism





Enables direct communication between military vessels and aircraft in English and agrees common frequencies. 

Launched in 2018 


Annual meetings between defense authorities and experts. 

Launched in 2018 

Defense Hotline 

Hotline between defense authorities.

Launched in 2023

Potential Weaknesses of the MACM

The MACM only applies to the Chinese and Japanese militaries and does not include their coast guards and non-military vessels that most frequently interact around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, leaving an important gap. The MACM also regulates communications but not conduct, meaning it does not help reduce risky behavior by frontline craft.  

Problems Affecting China-Japan Crisis Communication Negotiations and Implementation

  • Crises and political tensions: Negotiations of the MACM were derailed twice due to crises — once after a 2010 incident between a Chinese fishing boat and Japanese coastguard vessels and again after the Japanese government’s 2012 purchase of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from their private owner. Freezes and thaws in political tensions in the overall China-Japan relationship have also affected negotiations.   
  • Perceptions: Chinese and Japanese perceptions about the goals and purposes of crisis communications negotiations appear to differ and have been evolving, which has contributed to the difficulty in achieving agreed outcomes.  
  • Structure: There is a mismatch between the Chinese and Japanese political systems in several aspects. This includes the differences between Japan’s parliamentary system and China’s CCP-led regime. The Japanese prime minister heads the executive branch and is the commander in chief of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces (SDF). However, the authority of China’s premier is subordinate to that of the country’s president and CCP general secretary, who also is China’s top military leader as chairman of the Central Military Commission.  
  • Mistrust: Lack of use of the previous leader-level hotline during the 2010 Senkaku/Diaoyu crisis leaves open the question of whether anyone will actually pick up a hotline call. The Japanese have also worried that the Chinese would try to use the inclusion of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the mechanism to undermine Japan’s control of the islands or limit a Japanese response to a serious Chinese incursion. The Chinese, meanwhile, have worried that the Japanese would use the exclusion of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from the mechanism to strengthen their sovereignty claim. As a result, the geographic scope of the mechanism has not been specified.
  • Backchannels: In the absence of a formal mechanism, backchannels can be used to communicate information in a prolonged crisis, with varying effects. According to Japanese experts, these include high-level emissaries not contemporaneously serving in the Japanese government. The utility of backchannels is directly related to the availability of trusted emissaries, which has fluctuated over time.

China-Philippines Crisis Communications Mechanisms

Potential Flashpoints Covered by a Mechanism

All crisis communications mechanisms between China and the Philippines cover potential conflict in the South China Sea. Disputes between the two countries are driven by competing claims to maritime features — primarily the Spratly islands and Scarborough Shoal — and the entitlements they generate. 

While the disputes go back decades, tensions have been more pronounced since the mid-1990s, when China occupied the Philippine-claimed Mischief Reef in the Spratly Islands. Since then, several incidents have occurred involving military, coast guard and commercial fishing vessels, including but not limited to:

  • A standoff at Scarborough Shoal between a Philippine Navy vessel and two Chinese maritime surveillance ships (2012)
  • A diplomatic incident after more than 200 Chinese fishing vessels moored at Whitsun Reef, which is part of the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (2021)
  • A Chinese Coast Guard vessel directing a “military-grade laser” at a Philippine Coast Guard vessel, reportedly affecting the vision of crew members on the bridge (2023)
  • A Chinese Coast Guard vessel firing water cannons at Philippine Coast Guard and Naval vessels trying to resupply the BRP Sierra Madre at Second Thomas Shoal (2023) 

In 2013, the Philippines initiated a case regarding China’s claims and activities in the South China Sea under Annex VII of the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Three years later, the Permanent Court of Arbitration issued a ruling in favor of the Philippines on several counts, including, for example, that China’s claim to historic rights within its nine-dash line were inconsistent with UNCLOS. Immediately after the court’s award was issued, China declared it “null and void.”

Despite former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s downplaying of the award in an attempt to improve ties with Beijing, the disputes remain a potential flashpoint, especially in the context of rising tensions between the United States and China and the U.S.-Philippines mutual defense treaty.

Existing Crisis Communications Mechanisms

  • Communication mechanism on maritime issues: In January 2023, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. agreed to establish a direct communication mechanism between Chinese Foreign Ministry’s Department of Boundary and Ocean Affairs and the Philippines Foreign Ministry’s Maritime and Ocean Affairs Office.

    Status: Inactive. China did not respond to Philippines’ outreach after Sierra Madre 2023 incident.

  • Bilateral Consultative Mechanism on the South China Sea (BCM): Xi Jinping and then-President Rodrigo Duterte initially discussed a bilateral consultation mechanism during the latter’s state visit to China in 2016. The next year, the BCM held its first meeting as a platform to promote the peaceful management of conflicts in the South China Sea through consultation. Its meetings comprise equivalent officials from the two nations’ respective foreign ministries and maritime affairs agencies and meets alternately in China and the Philippines every six months.

    Status: Active. The seventh meeting was held in March 2023.

  • Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES): Both China and the Philippines are party to the non-binding CUES agreement which standardizes safety protocols and communications at sea for military ships and aircraft.

    Status: Active but non-binding. Many countries, including China, have been accused of using CUES selectively.

  • Declaration on the Conduct of parties in the South China Sea (DOC): In 2002, China and the member states of ASEAN signed an aspirational Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea. The non-binding agreement was intended as a first step toward a durable resolution to the perineal disputes in the South China Sea. The parties agreed to resolve their disputes by peaceful means, without resorting to the threat or use of force, and to exercise self-restraint in the conduct of activities that could escalate disputes. Additionally, the parties affirmed the need to adopt a binding code of conduct to promote peace and stability in the South China Sea. However, more than 20 years later, a code of conduct appears unlikely to be finalized anytime soon.

    Status: DOC signed in 2002. ASEAN and China are still working on binding code of conduct.

Potential Weaknesses of Existing Mechanisms

The BCM is a convened mechanism which, while valuable for communicating intent and establishing safety protocols, is not conducive for rapid information sharing in the immediate aftermath of a crisis. Furthermore, CUES and the newly established foreign ministry hotline are excellent in theory, but China’s selective use of these mechanisms with other countries, especially the United States, warrant concern that they will also be used selectively with the Philippines. Finally, while a binding code of conduct could certainly go a long way to preventing conflict or unnecessary escalation in the South China Sea, China and the Philippines have likely intractably different positions and substantial progress is unlikely in the near future. 

Problems Affecting Negotiations and Implementation of China-Philippines Crisis Communications

  • Anti-China sentiment in the Philippines: A significant portion of Philippine citizens harbor anti-China sentiment due to China’s aggressive actions in the South China Sea, leading to previous pushback against certain mechanisms. For example, while there is a case that the BCM has increased stability in the South China Sea, the meeting received strong public criticism because of the perception that Manila had bowed to Beijing and that China would control the agenda. And although the more hawkish Ferdinand Marcos Jr. has thus far allowed the BCM to continue meeting, it may fall out of favor as his administration seeks to combat Chinese aggression and coercion.
  • The Philippines’ security relationship with the United States: As a result of its history and geography, Manila often seeks a middle ground that maximizes its security between Beijing and Washington. However, the United States is by far the most important security partner for the Philippines and its only treaty ally. The alliance relationship is closer today than at any point in decades. As Manila and Washington continue to increase their security cooperation, Beijing may become less willing to establish new mechanisms or operate existing mechanisms with the Philippines. 
  • Chinese maritime militia and commercial fishermen: China boasts the world’s largest fishing fleet, a portion of which is registered in the People’s Armed Forces Maritime Militia (PAFMM). The PAFMM is essentially a mass organization of mariners working in the civilian economy that can be mobilized to protect China’s maritime interests and support the military in wartime. In recent years, China has increasingly employed militia vessels to defend its maritime claims in the South China Sea, including in the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, as was the case during the 2021 incident at Whitsun Reef. By utilizing the PAFMM to assert its maritime claims, Beijing retains plausible deniability for responsibility, which may change their assessment of what is and is not a crisis, thereby affecting its willingness to leverage existing mechanisms. China has similarly started using its coast guard to assert sovereignty in recent years. 
  • Other claimants: The territorial disputes in the South China Sea do not just involve the Philippines and China. Other claimants — including Brunei, Malaysia, Taiwan and Vietnam — conduct their own activities in the South China Sea. They also establish their own bilateral and multilateral crisis communications mechanisms with each other and the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia have taken steps to resolve differences and build confidence. This complex web of actors and the relationships between them can obstruct the implementation of bilateral mechanisms between China and the Philippines while also being a barrier to the adoption of multilateral mechanisms between all claimants and stakeholders.