Defense ministers from around the world gathered in Singapore last weekend for the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, a forum for discussing security challenges in Asia and an opportunity for high-ranking security officials to engage in bilateral talks. However, U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin did not meet with his Chinese counterpart, Li Shangfu. Beijing suspended formal military-to-military meetings last August following then-Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Since then, U.S.-China tensions have only ratcheted up, particularly following revelations this February that a Chinese surveillance balloon was hovering over U.S. territory. The precariousness of the situation was on full display in the last two weeks, with close calls between U.S.-China fighter jets over the South China Sea and warships in the Taiwan Strait.

Fighter jets in Taiwan, Oct. 2017. Recent close calls between the U.S. and Chinese militaries over the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait highlight concerns over the absence of crisis management mechanisms. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)
Fighter jets in Taiwan, Oct. 2017. Recent close calls between the U.S. and Chinese militaries over the South China Sea and in the Taiwan Strait highlight concerns over the absence of crisis management mechanisms. (Bryan Denton/The New York Times)

Those incidents highlight an extremely concerning dynamic between the two superpowers. While a conflict is far from inevitable, the lack of mechanisms to manage crises makes it more likely. Indeed, this issue was a particular point of discussion among numerous countries at Shangri-La, who want to see Washington and Beijing manage their differences, lest they get dragged into a great power conflict.

USIP’s Rosie Levine and Alex Stephenson provide three takeaways from the Shangri-La Dialogue and what it demonstrates about the U.S.-China relationship.

1. U.S.-China military talks remain at an impasse, despite growing risks. 

Last year, Austin met with Li’s predecessor at this forum, and spent over an hour discussing key points of friction including Taiwan, North Korea, and the war in Ukraine. But Li, who assumed the role of China’s minister of national defense in March, declined the invitation to speak with Austin in the week leading up to the Shangri-La Dialogue. (He remains under sanctions for his role in the purchase of Russian military equipment in 2018.) The absence of a meeting reflects the ongoing impasse in military dialogues even as high-level discussions have resumed in other areas.

Instead of using the summit to talk, the defense chiefs used their platform to blame the other for the lack of dialogue. For his part, Austin expressed deep concern “that the PRC [the People’s Republic of China] has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management.” In a clear jab at his Chinese counterpart, Austin said, “Dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity. A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for substantive engagement.” 

Meanwhile, in his speech, Li exhibited an ongoing inconsistency between China’s words and deeds regarding communication. He proclaimed that “only enhancing dialogue and communication and promoting solidarity and cooperation will ensure stability in our region,” adding that China would “follow the guidance of high-level engagement between defense and military leaders ... and establish various direct hotlines to expand communication channels.” Yet, Beijing is adding conditions for communication with the United States. For example, China’s foreign ministry spokesperson recently said the United States should “immediately correct its wrong practices, show sincerity, and create the necessary atmosphere and conditions for dialogue and communication between the two militaries.”  

This breakdown comes when communication between the military superpowers is needed most. Last week the Pentagon accused a Chinese fighter pilot of performing an “unnecessarily aggressive maneuver” over the South China Sea, which brought two fighter jets into precarious proximity. And over the weekend, a Chinese warship dangerously cut across the bow of an American warship transiting the Taiwan Strait. These are just the latest in a litany of close calls between the two militaries. With the risk of collision growing and dialogue channels closed, it is unclear if or how the two sides would communicate to resolve a crisis if one were to occur.  

2. Asian countries are seeking stability in the region and want Washington and Beijing to better manage their differences.

The absence of a U.S.-China senior leaders meeting cast a long shadow at Shangri-La and became a forum for both Li and Austin to court individual support from East and Southeast Asian partners. These meetings shed light on a few key priorities in the region: Asian countries are calling for the United States and China to manage their competition responsibly, meanwhile, finding success in establishing their own mechanisms with China to address pressing security needs. 

Many Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) security leaders, including the defense ministers from Cambodia, Indonesia and Singapore, called for the United States and China to find ways to manage their difference and not allow competition to threaten peace in the region. Singaporean Defense Minister Ng Eng Hen’s speech expressed his “deep concern” about the lack of dialogue between the two superpowers and warned that the lack of conflict-management mechanisms could have a devastating impact in the region. He noted that “for Asia and the wider Indo-Pacific region, the U.S.-China relationship is central to stability” and underscored that “Singapore and other ASEAN states are not disinterested bystanders” in the downturn in U.S.-China relations. 

Meanwhile, the region faces numerous pressing security challenges: Long-standing issues like territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas, threats from North Korea, and climate change remain key priorities for countries in Asia. Both Austin and Li held private meetings on the sidelines of Shangri-La to address these issues with key regional partners. In a number of bilateral and trilateral meetings, Austin committed to increasing joint exercises, strengthening military cooperation, and deepening engagement through frameworks and networks like ADMM-Plus, AUKUS, and the Quad.  

China, meanwhile, worked to establish stronger bilateral crisis communication mechanisms with key partners in the region. Before the summit, Li and Singapore’s Ng oversaw the signing of a memorandum of understanding, which included an agreement to establish a secure defense telephone link for high-level defense communications to de-escalate and prevent conflict. A meeting between Li and his Japanese counterpart, Yasukazu Hamada, offered another bright spot for crisis communications in the region, particularly notable due to China and Japan’s complicated relationship (which has been marked by deep animosity as a result of World War II legacies and disputed territorial claims in the East China Sea). During the meeting, the two ministers agreed to “appropriately and reliably” operate their bilateral defense hotline, which came online last month. Their discussion comes only weeks after Li and Hamada inaugurated the hotline with a brief but valuable call. 

The establishment of these new hotlines appears at odds with China’s hardline stance toward the United States’ request to utilize similar channels. In addition, merely establishing the channels doesn’t guarantee success — the United States has found that these hotlines go unanswered and fail to serve their original purpose. China may be establishing these mechanisms to lure Asian partners closer or to send a signal to the United States that hotlines can be established, but only on Beijing’s terms. Whatever the motivation, these crisis communication mechanisms, if effective, could provide useful insights for the United States as it considers its approach to crisis management with China.   

3. China continues to campaign for its vision of Beijing-led global security order.  

As expected, Li’s speech focused on Beijing’s Global Security Initiative — a campaign launched by Xi Jinping last April to advance China’s role in global security. In addition to offering “Chinese wisdom” to address the world’s most pressing security challenges, the GSI has also been used to critique American leadership in international security, a trend Li continued at the Shangri-La Dialogue. Overall, Beijing’s vision of security is framed as the antithesis to the American approach, casting China as a source of peace while labeling the United States as the destabilizing force. 

Li’s remarks opined that “some country” — a not too subtle reference to the United States — was responsible for disrupting peace and stability in the region. This included clear juxtapositions between Beijing’s vision for global security and the actions of the United States. For example, while Beijing champions mutual respect, according to Li, “some country has willfully interfered in other country's [sic] internal affairs and ... frequently resorted to unilateral sanctions, incursion with force.” 

During a question-and-answer session, Li expanded upon the different approaches to crisis management by the United States and China. While he insisted that China was open to communication with the United States, he was also adamant that Beijing has “principles to communication,” adding that mutual respect is a precondition for productive communication, without clarifying what that respect would look like.  

With respect to the recent close calls between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, Li placed blame on the U.S. military’s presence in the region, saying that such incidents can be prevented if militaries don’t act near the territory of other countries. This view — that the American military presence near China’s periphery is provocative — is hardly compatible with the U.S. and allied vision for a free and open Indo-Pacific region and will continue to be a source of tension in the years ahead. 

What Can Washington Do?

Despite their differences, both Austin and Li underscored that conflict between their countries is not inevitable. However, as close calls increase in frequency, the preventative measures needed to ensure peace should be established now. There is room for the interests of both countries in the region, but to manage these interests productively, greater coordination and dialogue is needed. The lack of a meeting between two of the highest-ranking security officials points to the deeply challenging environment, particularly with highly politicized attitudes toward the bilateral relationship in both countries. Policymakers in both countries should seek to establish mechanisms for security dialogue and crisis communication that can be insulated from the political issues of the day.  

At the same time, the United States should be clear-eyed about its prospects for communication with China. The reliable operation of existing mechanisms, such as the defense telephone link, as well as the establishment of new mechanisms and safety protocols, should be a persistent priority. But Washington must be aware that Beijing views these channels with deep skepticism and interprets crisis communication mechanisms as a way for the United States to more confidently conduct military activities on its periphery. As such, close calls and blocked communication channels are often seen as secondary to the greater risk — losing strategic ground to the United States. As long as this misalignment persists, the two sides will continue to speak past each other.

Lastly, despite China’s efforts to woo partners in the region, it still faces a tough security environment on its periphery. China’s neighbors have articulated a long list of security concerns related to Beijing’s assertive actions in the region, while the United States continues to enjoy strong partnerships and alliances throughout the Indo-Pacific. In the case of the Philippines, these concerns have driven a key Indo-Pacific partner closer to Washington. As U.S.-China crisis communications channels may take more time to establish, the United States can remain in close contact with these allies and partners to better understand China’s intentions and actions in the Pacific.

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