U.S. military leaders strive to maintain open lines of communication even with potential adversaries like China to prevent accidents and other miscalculations that could turn into an all-out conflict.
But the last call Milley had with his Chinese counterpart, Joint Chiefs of Staff General Li Zuocheng, was on July 7, the Pentagon said. The two spoke by secure video teleconference about the need to maintain open lines of communication, as well as to reduce risk, according to a readout from Milley’s office. Austin, meanwhile, met personally with Chinese Defense Minister General Wei Fenghe in June on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore.
“The secretary has repeatedly emphasized the importance of completely open lines of communication with China’s defense leaders to ensure that we can avoid any miscalculation, and that remains true,” Todd Breasseale, the Pentagon’s acting press secretary, told POLITICO in an email.
China announced on Friday that it was stop certain official dialogues between high-level US military commanders, including the regional commanders, as well as talks on maritime security. The announcement does not specifically apply to Austin and Milley’s colleagues, and officials said they remain open to communication between those executives.
White House spokesman John Kirby said that while the announcement “does not completely eliminate opportunities for senior members of our military to speak,” it does increase the risk of an accident.
“These lines of communication are actually important to help you reduce the risk of miscalculations and misunderstandings,” Kirby said Friday. “You have so much military hardware operating in restricted areas, it’s good, especially now, to have those lines of communication open.”
China is conducting military exercises around Taiwan that have broken several precedents and fundamentally changed the status quo in the region. Beijing this week fired missiles into Taiwan territory, including at least one that appears to have flown over the island, and has sorted ships and aircraft across the center line that separates Taiwan’s territorial waters from mainland China.
The United States, which does not officially recognize Taiwan’s independence but sells arms to the island, wants to avoid a situation like the one on April 1, 2001, when a US Navy EP-3 signals intelligence aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter jet collided midair. air, which led to an international dispute.
The risk of such an incident is increasing. China has recently increased aggressive activity in the Pacific, particularly the East and South China Seas, alarming US officials. Chinese planes and ships have buzzed and harassed American and allied pilots, even executing one “unsafe” interception with a US special operations C-130 aircraft in June.
Still, canceling military dialogue is important but not unprecedented, experts said.
“Historically, this is definitely part of the playbook,” Schriver said. “Mil-mil [communications] historically is on the chopping block when we have problems with China.”
But Kirby condemned the move as “irresponsible” at a time of escalating tensions.
“We find the shutdown of military communications channels at any level and to any extent and in a time of crisis to be an irresponsible act,” Kirby said.