The United States is keen to maintain open lines of communication with China in the military domain to avoid misperceptions both during peace time and crises but Beijing is either rejecting or not responding to American requests, Ely Ratner, the assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs in the department of defence (DOD), said on Thursday.
Speaking at a Washington think tank event, Ratner said the American strategy in the Indo-Pacific was one of deterrence aimed to make the costs of conflict in the Taiwan straits too high for China, while ensuring that activities aimed at deterrence did not lead to escalation and were in line with the needs and preferences of allies and partners. It was due to this strategy that the US believes that a conflict across the Taiwan straits was “neither inevitable nor imminent” for the costs for Beijing were too high to bear at the moment. “And our job is to keep it that way,” Ratner said.
The US administration has consistently maintained that it wishes to have open lines of communication with China. During their meeting in Bali, President Joe Biden and China’s president Xi Jinping agreed to do so and announced a visit by Secretary of State Antony J Blinken to Beijing.
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But days before Blinken was to depart for China in February, the US discovered a Chinese surveillance balloon over mainland American territory, leading to public outrage and the trip’s cancellation. In recent weeks, there has been a thaw in ties with US NSA Jake Sullivan meeting senior Chinese Communist Party foreign policy figure Wang Yi in Vienna, renewing the prospect of sustained high-level US-China engagement. But this hasn’t translated into the military domain yet.
Absence of military engagement
Ratner said that Lloyd Austin, secretary of defense, had emphasised the importance of these lines of communication. “But unfortunately, we have had a lot of difficulty when we have proposed phone calls, meetings, dialogues.”
He said whether it was at the level of Secretary Austin, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff Mike Milley, Indo-Pacific command (INDOPACOM) commander Admiral John C Aquilino, deputy assistant secretary of defence for China Michael Chase, or other civilian or uniformed engagements, American requests have either been rejected or not answered. “The US and DOD have had an outstretched hand on this question of military to military engagement but we have yet to have consistently willing partners.”
Ratner said that lines of communication were important both during peace time and during a crisis “to prevent misperception and miscalculation and to prevent crises from spinning out of control”. The aim of these mechanisms was to discuss how both sides thought about “emerging domains” and how they were conceiving their strategy in domains “which may have high escalatory potential”.
On whether Austin will meet his Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu, during the Shangrila dialogue in Singapore in early June, Ratner said that Austin and DOD had initiated a request to meet with Li several weeks ago. “That request has not been answered one way or the other. We are aware of what PRC (People’s Republic of China) has said about the fact that Li is under CAATSA sanctions. What is indisputable is that those sanctions have no legal or technical bearing on whether he can meet with Austin in Shangrila. Frankly the ball is in their court.”
While saying that the US-China relationship was not similar to the US-Soviet relationship, Ratner brought in a Cold War analogy. “The Cold War was a time of military rivalry between major powers. Folks often remember the intricate military to military mechanisms that were set up to manage that. But of course that came out of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The question for PRC is that do we need a major crisis because we take it seriously. Our argument is let us do it now and not wait for that to be the context.”
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The Taiwan question and deterrence
Responding to a question on the situation in the Taiwan straits, Ratner first said that American policy had not changed. “We have maintained our consistent behaviour under the Taiwan Relations Act, one China policy. We have a clear objective to maintain status quo in the Taiwan straits. We do not support Taiwan independence. I repeat: We don’t support Taiwan independence. It is a talking point for critics of ours but it is not true. We want to maintain status quo.”
But Ratner added that under the same Act, the US had a commitment to provide Taiwan with defensive arms to defend itself as well as maintain America’s own capacity to resist efforts at coercion. “We continue to do that through revisions of our force posture, through developments of new concepts, introduction of capabilities, our work with allies and partners. Where we are confident we are today is that deterrence is real and strong.”
That is why, Ratner said, Pentagon leaders have maintained regularly that they don’t believe that conflict across the straits was either “inevitable or imminent”. “And the reason for that is because we have done all these activities, because we believe deterrence is real… Deterrence is strong and costs of conflict for Beijing remain not something they would be willing to bear…This will be a challenge as PRC continues to modernise. We certainly feel a sense of urgency. But deterrence is strong…and our job is to keep it that way.”
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Ratner said that the a key test for the strategy of deterrence was the US’s ability to maintain balance in its policy in two ways.
The first was as it related to allies and partners. “How do we make those sustainable where PRC remains a geographic, economic, political, historical, cultural reality for every country in the region? We are not asking partners to choose between US and China. We meet them where they are in terms of their security concerns, be it sovereignty or energy. We are focused on supporting their priorities of modernisation and believe that benefits us through stability in the region.”
Ratner claimed that the US was not trying to build a “major anti-China coalition” as critics alleged, and instead was adopting a unique approach. “We are moving at a very rapid pace, but alongside our allies and partners.” The US, he said, wasn’t “dragging” its partners along but “racing alongside them”.
The second test, Ratner said, was building deterrence but not engaging in deterrence activities in a way that they would lead an escalation or crisis. “Getting the gears on that correct in a way that provides deterrent value in a way that is stabilising is a huge focus of ours.”