Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Can the U.S. and Chinese Militaries Get Back on Speaking Terms?

| Oct. 15, 2021

Indo-Pacific Security Depends on Reviving Bilateral Defense Dialogue

Nearly nine months into the administration of U.S. President Joe Biden, Washington’s relationship with Beijing has sunk to a historic low. After a high-level diplomatic meeting in March that devolved into an ugly exchange of insults, fruitless visits to China by U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman and Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, and virtual climate talks that failed to produce clear deliverables, the world’s two great powers have reached a dangerous impasse.

By forming a new trilateral security pact with the United Kingdom and Australia, the United States has made it clear that it is serious about defending its allies in Asia and countering China’s territorial claims. But while the move has been hailed by some Western commentators as a stroke of strategic brilliance, it has also sharply increased military tensions in the Indo-Pacific.

During a phone call last month, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping discussed the “responsibility of both countries to ensure competition does not veer into conflict.” History suggests that open communication is the best way for the two great powers to uphold that responsibility, but Xi and Biden’s recent call was their first conversation in seven months. More alarming, neither U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin nor Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has yet met with his or her Chinese counterpart. Although the Pentagon’s first reported contact since Biden’s inauguration took place on August 27 and was followed by video conferences at the deputy assistant secretary level in September, no communication has occurred at the senior-most levels of military leadership.

As Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan have argued in these pages, the U.S.-Chinese rivalry is not a problem to be solved but a condition to be managed. If the Biden administration hopes to manage the competition and prevent it from turning into catastrophe, it must take urgent action to establish and maintain open channels of communication between the Pentagon and China’s armed forces.


For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Li, Chris and Eric Rosenbach.“Can the U.S. and Chinese Militaries Get Back on Speaking Terms?.” Foreign Affairs, October 15, 2021.

The Authors

Eric Rosenbach