Establishment of U.S.-China Military Hotline a Growing Possibility

After years of stalling, China appears to have finally agreed to the creation of a military hotline between the Chinese Ministry of National Defense (MND) and the U.S. Department of Defense (DoD). In recent statements, General Qian Lihua, deputy director of the Chinese MND, stated that the two countries may reach a consensus on the hotline when they meet for the ninth round of the U.S.-China defense consultations in September. Such a hotline, noted General Qian, would be the first hotline between China’s Ministry of National Defense and the defense ministry of another country (Zhongguo Tongxun She, June 26). Similar remarks have also been made by other Chinese leaders in past months, including Lieutenant General Zhang Qinsheng, the newly appointed commander of the Guangzhou Military Region, who stated during the recent annual Shangri-La Dialogue security summit in Singapore, “We will finalize the establishment of the hotline” (Xinhua, June 3). In April, a U.S. team was sent to Beijing to advise the Chinese military on the technical issues of setting up such a hotline. It is believed that the operational details of the hotline, such as the actual location of the phones as well as the length and scope of the conversations, will be hammered out during the upcoming bilateral defense consultations in the United States.

The idea of creating a U.S.-China military hotline—repeatedly proffered by the United States in past years—was proposed again in June 2006 by then Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Peter Rodman. Although hotlines between the U.S. and Chinese heads of state as well as the U.S. Department of State and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs already exist, the Chinese civilian leadership had been hesitant in the past to allow for the creation of such a military hotline. Doing so, they feared, might result in a loss of command and control over their military commanders during periods of crisis or heightened tensions. Recently, however, a number of Chinese analysts and strategists have joined their U.S. counterparts in proposing the need for such a hotline given the existing tensions and conflicts of interest between the two countries. Major General Yang Yi, director of the Strategy Research Institute of the National Defense University, for instance, argued that a U.S.-China military hotline is critical to improving the strategic mutual trust between both countries (Zhongguo Tongxun She, June 26). Yet, the creation of a hotline between the DoD and MND—a key mechanism in facilitating the enhancement of relations between the two militaries—may not prove to be altogether useful during a period of crisis. Unlike the U.S. Defense Department, the Chinese Defense Ministry is primarily responsible for developing relations with foreign militaries and does not exercise control over the PLA; command authority over the PLA belongs to the Central Military Commission, which is currently chaired by Chinese President Hu Jintao.