US military leaders are working to keep lines of communication open even with potential adversaries such as China to avoid mishaps and other miscalculations that could turn into a full-blown conflict.
But the last call Milley had with his Chinese counterpart, Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Li Zuocheng, was on July 7, the Pentagon said. The pair spoke via secure video teleconference about keeping lines of communication open, as well as reducing risk, according to a reading from Milley’s office. Austin, meanwhile, met in person with Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe in June on the sidelines of the Shangri-La dialogue in Singapore.
“The Secretary has repeatedly stressed the importance of fully open lines of communication with China’s defense leadership to ensure that we can avoid miscalculations, and that remains true,” said Todd Breasseale, press secretary. acting Pentagon, to POLITICO in an email.
China announced on Friday that it was ending some formal dialogues between top U.S. military commanders, including regional commanders, as well as talks on maritime security. The announcement does not specifically apply to the Austin and Milley counterparts, and officials said they are still open to communication between those leaders.
White House spokesman John Kirby said while the announcement “does not completely eliminate opportunities for our military’s senior leadership to speak,” it does increase the risk of an accident.
“These lines of communication are actually important in helping you reduce the risk of miscalculation and misperception,” Kirby said Friday. “You have so much military hardware operating in confined areas, it’s good, especially now, to have those lines of communication open.”
China is conducting military exercises around Taiwan that have broken multiple precedents and fundamentally changed the status quo in the region. Beijing launched missiles into Taiwan territory this week, including at least one that appears to have flown over the island, and took out ships and planes across the median line separating Taiwan’s territorial waters from mainland China.
The United States, which does not officially recognize Taiwan’s independence but sells weapons to the island, wants to avoid a situation like that of April 1, 2001, when a US Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter collided in mid-air, causing an international dispute.
The risk of such an incident is increasing. China has recently stepped up its aggressive activities in the Pacific, particularly in the East and South China Seas, alarming US officials. Chinese planes and ships buzzed and harassed American and allied pilots, even carrying out a “dangerous” interception with a US C-130 special operations plane in June.
Still, the cancellation of military dialogue is significant, but not unprecedented, experts said.
“Historically, it’s definitely been part of the playbook,” Schriver said. “Mil-mil [communications] is historically on the chopping block when we have problems with China.
But Kirby condemned the move as “irresponsible” at a time of growing tensions.
“We find the shutdown of military communication channels at any level and at any scale and in times of crisis to be an irresponsible act,” Kirby said.