U.S.-China Military Hotline a Model for Cross-Strait CBM

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 22

After the EP-3 mid-air incident, the PRC learned an important lesson in crisis management and the Central Party School, the highest institution to train officials of the Communist Party of China (CPC) in Beijing, began to offer its first course on the subject in 2002. Meanwhile, the United States undertook a critical re-evaluation of its military exchange programs with the PRC. Since the departure of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S.-PRC military relationship has thawed significantly under a series of high-level visits. For example, before Defense Secretary Robert Gates’s recent visit to China, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Peter Pace, U.S. Pacific Command Commander-in-Chief Admiral Timothy Keating, and the Navy’s former Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mullen all called on Beijing separately, and Beijing’s navy chief Vice Admiral Wu Shengli visited the United States in 2007 [1]. These exchanges culminated in the agreement to set up a military hotline in time for Defense Secretary Gates’ early November visit.

Beijing claims that the military hotline with the United States is the first of its kind with a foreign country and may become an example for future Chinese bilateral arrangements with other military powers (Liaowang Xinhua News, November 12). Cautious observers do not overestimate the value of this first ever-military hotline between two of the world’s most powerful militaries. Qian Lihua, deputy director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Chinese Ministry of National Defense, revealed it was Peter Rodman, former assistant secretary of defense, who first officially raised the idea of establishing a military hotline during the Defense Consultative Talks in June 2006 (International Herald Tribune, June 11). Even though the proposal had been earlier communicated by Washington, Beijing only recently became responsive to the United States’ clarion calls (China Brief, June 13). At the Shangri-La Defense dialogue in June 2007, Lieutenant-General Zhang Qinsheng, deputy chief of the general staff of the PLA, claimed publicly that Beijing’s acceptance of the hotline is a demonstration of the PLA’s sincere commitment to military transparency [2].

There remain, however, several technical hurdles for Beijing to follow through with establishing the hotline. These hurdles include determining the corresponding department to serve as the receptor of communication—if not the Ministry of Defense; the interval of contacts through this channel; the key focal point or receiver—if not the defense minister themselves; and the content of conversations: will it be purely military or will there be an political overcast? The PLA also has a new General Chief of Staff Chen Bingde, and Defense Minister Cao Gangchuan, who was Defense Sectary Gates’s host in Beijing, is soon to step down around the National People’s Congress in March 2008, and may be succeeded by the Politburo member Xu Caihou, deputy chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). Given the expected change in personnel, the first run for the military hotline will probably be a stage greeting rather than for testing conflict avoidance or crisis prevention. Yet the military hotline may relieve Ambassador Joseph Prueher, former commander-in-chief of Pacific Command and the U.S. ambassador to the PRC from 1999-2001, who probably regretted not having a direct line to Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotien during the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996 (CRS, August 20).

The perception gap that exists between Beijing and Washington is over the function and purpose of military exchange between the two countries. For Beijing, the military hotline is a key catalyst for future military exchanges program with the United States. For the United States, military transparency, clarification of military intent, notification of dangerous military activities, avoidance of military incidents or even crisis communications in the Taiwan Strait are main functions of the hotline [3]. Peng Guanqian, a strategist at China’s Academy of Military Science, pointed out that the major symbol of this military hotline is political rather than military (Ta Kung Pao, November 16). This implies that breakthrough with the military hotline is highly dependent on the progress of a constructive and cooperative relationship between Beijing and Washington, and avoiding potential pitfalls that may derail the process. The United States and the PRC had Military Maritime Consultation Talks but could not prevent the mid-air incident in Hainan island, and the Defense Consultative Talks were interrupted by the embassy bombing in 1999 and unprecedented U.S. arms sales to Taiwan in 2001.

On November 9, on his final stop in Asia at the Sophia University in Japan, Defense Secretary Gates categorizes China as “a competitor in some respects and partner in others,” but not a “strategic adversary” as branded by his predecessors. Gates sees the need for a military hotline to assist mutual understanding of strategic military intent, decision-making, and key capabilities of the PLA. The PRC agreed to jointly oppose a nuclear-armed Iran, but Beijing still owes Secretary Gates and Peter Pace, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, an explanation for the Chinese anti-satellite test in January 2007 when the issue was raised in Beijing. Secrecy and lack of transparency is embedded in Chinese strategic culture and defense thinking and Beijing simply could not share what they have with a foreign competitor such as the United States.

In April 1993, Taiwan’s Straits Exchanges Foundation (SEF), the semi-governmental organization in charge of cross-Strait affairs, first reached an agreement on a system for contacts and meetings between SEF and China’s Association of Relations Across the Taiwan Straits (ARATS) in Singapore, and designated the deputy secretary level as the emergency contact person. Later on, the Taiwanese focal point found it difficult to reach his counterpart in ARATS during a time of emergency for clarification or information sharing. Ambassador Prueher once complained that the PRC’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the PLA did not respond to his inquiries immediately after the EP-3 incident for several hours (CRS, August 10). Similar complaints were also filed in Japan’s experience during the intrusion of a Chinese Han-class nuclear-power submarine into Japanese territorial waters in the Okinawa islands chain in November 2004. In a conversation with an anonymous researcher in the National Defense Academy of Japan back in February 2005, the Self-Defense Agency communicated with the Chinese North Fleet but got no response immediately after the first call.

Compared to the 1995-1996 Taiwan Strait missile crisis, the PRC is now deploying weapons system such as J-10 indigenous fighter aircraft, Sovremmeny-class destroyers, Kilo-class submarines, Type 022 missile fast attack craft, and about 1,000 surface-to-surface missiles targeting Taiwan. Through military modernization, Beijing is eager to let the United States and Japan know that Beijing is preparing to deter, delay and defeat foreign intervention (China Leadership Monitor, Summer 2005). In its 2007 Military Power of the People’s Republic of China (PRC), the Pentagon reconfirmed that the “expanding military capabilities of China’s armed forces are a major factor in changing East Asian military balances” (Office of the Secretary of Defense, February 2006).

Taiwan cannot compete with the PRC in military modernization and the island cannot defend itself without intervention from the United States and Japan. After the long stone-walling from the Kuomintang, the major opposition party, of the special defense budget in the Legislative Yuan, Taiwan has finally adopted a scaled-down defense acquisition package from the United States, including approval of 12 P-3C Orion maritime ASW aircraft (U.S. $190 million), an upgraded PAC-II version rather than a PAC-III for the island’s anti-missile defense (U.S. $109 million), the assessment feasibility of diesel submarines (U.S. $6.2million), and initial appropriation of additional F16 C/D (U.S. $499 million) [4]. It may not be significant in scale but it is a breakthrough in appropriating budgets to acquire the major weapons as agreed by President Bush in April 2004. In the National Security Report 2006, President Chen Shui-bian stated a goal of reversing the declining trends and increasing the defense budget from 2.54% in 2006 to 3% of GDP by 2008 (NSC 2006 National Security Report, p. 88). Recently, President Chen publicly admitted that it might be difficult to meet the targeted benchmark; however, there are signs in the defense platform of the DPP and KMT’s presidential candidate that indicate a commitment from both sides to raise the ratio of Taiwan’s annual defense budget.

As early as 2004, President Chen pledged that Taiwan will not develop weapons of mass destruction such as nuclear, biological and chemical weapons and urged the PRC to openly renounce the development and use of weapons of mass destruction. Chen also suggested military buffer zones be established to exclude military aircrafts and ships from entering. More importantly, Chen drew from the experience of the 1972 Incidents at Sea Agreements between the United States and the USSR, and the 1998 Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) between the United States and the PRC and suggested that the “Code of Conduct across the Taiwan Strait” and more specifically a military hotline be considered in the Taiwan Strait for conflict prevention. In particular, Taipei suggests both sides conduct a joint effort to develop an “emergency procedure,” to reduce uncertainty in case of contingency, and to handle accidental sea or air intrusion in keeping the situation from escalating beyond control (MND 2004 National Defense Report, p. 76).

A military hotline between the United States and the PRC is welcomed in Taiwan. Taipei sees the current upgraded military exchanges between China and the United States as operations of “security management” rather than a whole-hearted security cooperation. Without doubt, the U.S.-PRC military hotline could serve as a channel to defuse any tensions in the Taiwan Strait and it is not logical to exclude its applicability to Taiwan and China. Yet for many years, China has been intentionally lukewarm to Taipei’s proposal of confidence-building measures (CBMs). From 1991-1995, directors of offices of Jiang Zemin and Lee Teng-hui had secretly met several times for building smooth cross-Strait relations leading to the Koo-Wang Talks in Singapore [5]. The creation of a secret channel indicated that there were precedents in the Taiwan Strait for a hotline that can foster a more predictable and less suspicious relationship to calm the cross-Strait tides.


1. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Michael Mullen replaced Peter Pace as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in October 2007.

2. Goh Sui Noi, Straits Times, June 7, 2007; Hu Xuan, China Daily (Beijing),

June 5, 2007

3. See also Shirley Kan, US-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress, updated August 20, 2007

4. Shih Hsiu-chuan, Taipei Times, June 16, 2007, p, 1.

5. “The Koo-Wang Meeting and Cross-Strait Relations,” Mainland Affairs Council, Taiwan, October 6, 1998.