For over a decade, confrontation over maritime administration and transit has increased the risk of security incidents between Japan and China. Disputes over territorial incursions, military movements and other activities have maintained consistent friction points between these regional neighbors, begging the question of how the two sides might mitigate tactical-level incidents from becoming strategic-level crises. To that end, on May 16, the two countries’ defense ministers held their first phone call across the newly established “Hotline between Japan-China Defense Authorities.” This culminated a years-long effort to establish a viable line of communication for information exchange and crisis management.

Japan Coast Guard patrol ships docked in the harbor on Ishigaki, Nov. 4, 2021. The island is home to Japan’s largest Coast Guard office, which devotes significant resources to patrolling the Senkaku Islands. (The New York Times)
Japan Coast Guard patrol ships docked in the harbor on Ishigaki, Nov. 4, 2021. The island is home to Japan’s largest Coast Guard office, which devotes significant resources to patrolling the Senkaku Islands. (The New York Times)

A few weeks later in Singapore in a meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri La summit, the two defense ministers reaffirmed that this hotline would be used "appropriately and reliably." While the new hotline received some fanfare for its activation after years of stalled negotiations, skepticism remains over how useful it might be; after all, it would only take one side refusing to pick up the phone to undo the years it took to activate the line in the first place. While hotlines are not cure-alls for eliminating security problems, they do offer practical utility amid persistent sources of conflict and tension. How much value it will have will ultimately depend on how Japanese and Chinese defense practitioners maximize the benefits and minimize the limitations of this tool in mitigating potential incidents and managing ongoing issues over maritime transit, territorial claims and other areas of security risk.

What is a Hotline?

Hotlines can come in many forms, but fundamentally they are formalized means of communication between specified offices or persons with a mutual understanding or agreement that when one side calls, the other will answer. A hotline can be established simply by exchanging cell phone numbers for high-level defense officials — as was the case between the military commanders of the Ethiopian National Defense Force and the Tigray People's Liberation Front — or through the installation of dedicated, single-use phone lines like those that exist between the militaries of North and South Korea.

Hotlines can be tools for communication in all phases from peacetime to conflict. In day-to-day communication, hotlines can allow governments or militaries to maintain routine contact and provide notifications of any unusual circumstances or exceptional events that might otherwise generate a strong reaction from the other side. In crisis and conflict, officials can use the hotline for four core actions: exchanging information; conveying interests; presenting positions, red lines or preconditions to dialogue; or negotiating a return to peacetime conditions.

Benefits of Hotlines

Given these functions, hotlines offer significant utility to practitioners. First and foremost is that they provide an institutionalized means of communication between two sides with specified responsibilities. When a crisis strikes is not the time to determine who to call or how to get a hold of them. The hotline is an ever-present mechanism for communication on matters of importance, particularly those that could drive escalation to hostilities.

Hotlines also afford the ability to mitigate information problems. Three obstacles to crisis management are confusion, mixed messaging, and mis- or dis-information; thus, having a direct line of communication aimed specifically at mitigating crisis and conflict enables practitioners to cut through bad information and deliver clear messages to the other side.

Another practical benefit is that hotlines offer an option to decision makers other than tit-for-tat escalation or inaction, the latter of which tends to be less politically palatable than the former. In response to security incidents, government decision makers often feel compelled to take immediate action that is oftentimes escalatory in nature; for example, conducting a show-of-force, elevating military readiness levels, or — in situations where an attack may have occurred — executing counterstrikes. A hotline affords decision makers a de-escalatory option for engaging the other side that not only slows the decision cycle but enables better information before taking any other counteractions.

A useful example of where hotlines with China have worked is between the People’s Liberation Army and the Indian Armed forces along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), the 2,100-mile boundary that separates the two sides. The LAC has seen multiple clashes between the Chinese and Indian militaries and the two sides have instituted at least six hotlines at various flashpoints to allow for immediate communication at the battalion and brigade levels. These hotlines have not eliminated competition along the demarcation line, but they have enabled the two sides to engage as soon as there are heightened tensions. As a commander of India’s Northern Army has noted, whenever there is an “irritant,” the armies immediately call for talks and push for an amicable solution.

Shortcomings of Hotlines

While there are many benefits to having a hotline put into place, there are also potential shortcomings that can fuel criticism. What if one side decides not to pick up the call? What if a government demands concessions in exchange for answering the phone? What if the people who operate the hotline have no actual decision-making authority vis-à-vis a crisis? In those situations, the hotline could feasibly become a tool for manipulation or obstruction.

Those concerns are all salient as the Japanese government considers its new hotline with Chinese defense authorities. Xi Jinping’s government has demonstrated a willingness to shut off lines of communication in a crisis rather than keep them open. This was clear following then House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s August 2022 visit to Taiwan, which led to Beijing suspending bilateral contact across agreed-upon mechanisms amid a series of responses by Chinese military forces. Most recently, the Philippine Coast Guard declared the Philippine-China coast guard hotline defunct after repeated failures since its establishment in 2017, including the most recent incident on August 5, when a Chinese Coast Guard vessel used a water cannon on a Philippine resupply vessel. Those are the sorts of incidents where hotlines are most needed to facilitate crisis management, and they failed owing to Chinese non-engagement.

There is also the concern of the mismatch in authorities. While neither the Japanese nor Chinese governments have announced the day-to-day operators of their hotline, the principals who inaugurated it were the defense ministers. Although holding the same title, Li Shangfu does not possess the same standing in the decision-making circles of Beijing as his Japanese counterpart does in Tokyo. Hamada Yasukazu is not only a senior member of Japan's ruling party but a core participant in the government’s National Security Council. This could lead to doubts over the utility of communication across the hotline when considering options during a crisis.

These shortcomings create risks, but do not automatically guarantee failure. There are ways to overcome these limitations via practical measures. The first is to recognize the issues that may exist and to build processes and procedures around them. If counterparts on the line are not able to do anything more than pass messages up to higher-level decision makers, then practitioners on the other side must simply treat the hotline as a tool for clear, one-way communication. While that is not ideal, it still presents a means for mitigating information problems in crisis management, which makes it useful.

If the other side is trying to elicit concessions or refusing to pick up the phone, a party can highlight this breach of agreement to curry international support via strategic messaging. In any crisis, the international community will try to figure out who is in the right and in the wrong. It is difficult for a party to crisis to justify that they are acting responsibly when they let a mutually agreed-upon and viable mechanism for de-escalation go unutilized. Highlighting this helps eliminate doubt over who is the rule-follower and the rule-breaker, which aids the international community in determining how to respond to a potential or ongoing crisis.

These principles and approaches will be important for Japanese defense practitioners as they operationalize their new hotline with China.

Understanding the Japan-China Hotline

Although the Japan-China hotline earned substantial reporting when it activated, both governments have reserved comment on it since. Neither side has shared specifics as to who is utilizing it within their respective military institutions or how frequently. Are the operators uniformed officials or bureaucrats? Does it function 24/7/365? Do they have routine contact to ensure that the line remains open and viable? Are they actively exchanging information across the line or reserving it for when a crisis is happening?

Although it would be useful for outside observers to know if the two sides are taking steps to routinize the contact, the lack of reporting actually signals a positive element related to the line. One of the risks to hotlines is that they become politicized; in other words, instead of being practical mechanisms for mitigating incidents and managing crises, they are treated as tools for delivering high-level protests. For example, if a Chinese military flotilla passes through the Miyako Strait — something that irks the Japanese government — Defense Minister Hamada could attempt to use the hotline to send a message of condemnation which is then advertised in the press as a strong rebuke to the Chinese action. While that may be politically useful in the short-term, once a hotline becomes politicized, it loses its practical utility, and there are many reasons Japanese and Chinese defense practitioners need that hotline.

For China’s part, their modus operandi has been the pursuit of incremental gains without allowing unforeseen circumstances to escalate into incidents which elicit strong, consolidated international response. China has maintained its “gray-zone” approaches in the East China Sea — meaning operations just beneath the threshold of illegality or those which exploit seams in the rules-based international order — to normalize its activities. However, any security incident triggered by Chinese assets could not only introduce undesired strain in bilateral relations with Japan, but invite additional scrutiny from the international community. A hotline that helps mitigate unanticipated escalation could be useful to Beijing’s policy designs.

From a Japanese government perspective, there are several areas of security risk with China where a hotline can be useful. The one that garners the most attention is Chinese activity around the Senkaku Islands. The Chinese government has demonstrated a willingness to maintain a consistent presence in and around the territorial waters surrounding the uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are under Japanese administration.

In 2018, there were 18 territorial incursions, which dropped to eight instances in 2020 before rising back to 11 cases last year. As has been demonstrated in the past, illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing as well as Chinese Coast Guard attempts to “co-administer” the islands has led to incidents that could escalate tensions between the regional neighbors. A hotline could enable the two sides to exchange information and to convey redlines associated with IUU fishing and administration around the Senkakus. This would allow Tokyo and Beijing to employ more measured decision making in response to activities in the East China Sea.

There is also the issue of passage through Japanese-administered waters. Japan recognizes only five of its maritime straits as constituting international passages — the Osumi, Soya, Tsushima East, Tsushima West, and Tsugaru straits — which creates friction with China when Chinese aircraft and vessels transit on or above the waters of the Tokara and Miyako straits. The hotline could enable Chinese defense authorities to provide prior notification before employing those thoroughfares. While that does not solve the problem, it does eliminate surprise and enable more measured approaches to it.

The third risk area includes unplanned encounters in the air and at sea. In 2022, the Japan Air Self Defense Force scrambled 575 times against Chinese military aircraft, and there were 68 instances where Japanese defense authorities were alerted to, monitored and reported on Chinese vessels transiting the waters around Japan. As was demonstrated in 2001 with the collision of a Chinese J-8 fighter jet into a U.S. P-3 reconnaissance aircraft, these encounters carry risk of triggering crises, whether big or small.

Finally, there is the ever-present potential for unforeseen incidents and accidents that could trigger escalation cycles. While Japanese and Chinese defense practitioners are all aware of the issues associated with overlapping territorial and administrative claims, the triggers for crises could be things that had never crossed their worried minds. Amid uncertainty, having an institutionalized mechanism for information sharing and dialogue allows for the parties' first steps in an emerging crisis to be measured and deliberate rather than unsure or unbridled.

Right now, there is no indication as to how successful the new hotline for Japan-China defense authorities will be in managing tensions and mitigating crises. There will inevitably be shortcomings in the operation of this hotline — just as there are with any in the world. The key for defense practitioners in Tokyo will be to recognize those shortcomings and, rather than decrying all the reasons the hotline is not working, figure out ways for maximizing the potential benefits. At this point, how much utility the hotline will have hinges on the practitioners themselves.

Michael MacArthur Bosack is a seasoned international negotiator and the founder of the Parley Policy Initiative. He is the special adviser for Government Relations at the Yokosuka Council on Asia-Pacific Studies. Michael is a former East-West Center fellow, a military veteran and the author of “Negotiate: A Primer for Practitioners.”

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