Zhou Bo: After the ‘three cancellations’ of the China-US military dialogue, what will be the ‘new normal’?

The following translation is an interview with retired PLA Senior Colonel Zhou Bo by Guancha. Zhou is currently a Senior Fellow at the Center for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University. He previously served in the PLA Office of International Military Cooperation, and participated in military-to-military dialogues and exchanges with the United States.

This translation offers insight into his thinking on the Taiwan issue and US-China military relations.

An archived version of the original Chinese-language interview can be found here.

On August 5, China’s Foreign Ministry announced eight measures against the U.S. following U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. The first three involve China’s cancellation of regular consultation and exchange mechanisms between the Chinese and American militaries. What is the role and operation of these three military mechanisms? What will be the subsequent impact of their cancellation? Guancha.cn (观察者网) spoke with Zhou Bo, a researcher at Tsinghua University’s Center for Strategic and Security Studies and an expert of the China Forum, about these issues.

Guancha.cn: On August 5, the Foreign Ministry announced eight countermeasures against the US, including the cancellation of the phone call between the heads of the Chinese and U.S. theater commands, the working-level meeting between the two defense departments, and the cancellation of the China-U.S. maritime military security consultation mechanism.

Could you give us more details about how the three canceled mechanisms had actually worked and what role they played?

Zhou Bo: The three mechanisms are different from each other in terms of historical background and main objectives:

In 1998, the Defense ministries of China and the United States established the China-U.S. Maritime Military Security Consultation mechanism, which is the oldest of its kind and consists of three levels: annual meetings, special meetings, and working group meetings. The reason for establishing this mechanism is that the U.S. military vessels and aircraft have been conducting high-intensity and extensive surveillance of China’s military vessels and aircraft for years, and China could not idly sit by. Therefore, friction could very easily arise. The collision incident between the two countries (this refers to the EP-3 collision in April 2001) in the South China Sea is a typical example of such friction. China and the United States have established daily communication mechanisms at the military-level precisely to avoid such incidents.

This communication mechanism is certainly beneficial, but in terms of effectiveness, it is limited. The root cause is that the two sides view the issue differently:

We Chinese talk about strategic issues, while the U.S. only talks about tactical issues. For example, the U.S. side often says that “the last time Chinese planes and warships came very close to us, it threatened the safety of our planes and warships”. The China side likes to say, “The U.S. should reduce or even cancel its hostile naval and air surveillance against China”. In other words, from China’s point of view, the U.S. demand is actually equivalent to asking China to guarantee its security while provoking and conducting reconnaissance against China, which is unreasonable.

As a result, the China-U.S. Maritime Security Consultation mechanism has been going round in circles since its establishment more than a decade ago due to differences in ideas between the two sides. I, myself, once led a team to the Pentagon to negotiate the legal status of U.S. naval and air surveillance. Both sides cited the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), but the convention was vague in many places and could be interpreted flexibly. While each other’s national interests were clear, it was difficult for the two sides to reach an effective consensus.

The second mechanism is the Defense Department/Ministry Meeting between China and the U.S., which was established in 2005. This mechanism is a systematic meeting between the relevant agencies of the U.S. Department of Defense and my unit, the Office of International Military Cooperation of the Ministry of Defense.

This institutionalized meeting is mainly an executive body to implement various consensuses reached between the Chinese and U.S. militaries. It holds annual meetings on a rotating basis to summarize the situation, look ahead, implement consensus, and make recommendations. This mechanism is conceivably very important.

The third mechanism is the command phone call. This is a new mechanism and has its own special background. The relationship between China and the U.S. is sensitive and important. For China, the relationship between China and the U.S. is a top priority, and the relationship between the two militaries is even more sensitive. Therefore, anything involving the relationship between the two militaries is not trivial and any decision goes all the way to the top. But Americans emphasize contact between the officers and soldiers on the front line. Communications between are needed to avoid “accidents”.

The military systems of China and the U.S. are also different. The Chinese system is more vertical and hierarchical, while the American system is flatter and more flexible. But there are problems with being too flexible. We believe that, of course, soldiers and officers from both sides are in close proximity, but they relatively lack strategic awareness. If there is no guidance from higher ups, they are prone to problems.

Prior to this, for various reasons, some dialogue mechanisms, such as the Army dialogue mechanism and the Joint Staff dialogue mechanism, have been suspended. After the “three cancellations”, there are only two channels of communication left: the first is the direct telephone line, commonly known as the “hotline”, established by the Chinese and U.S. militaries in 2008; the second is the routine official negotiations of the defense attachés’ office inside the two embassies.

Guancha.cn: In your opinion, why did the country choose these three items as the contents of the sanctions, and what signal did it send to the U.S. side?

Zhou Bo: The reason why we chose these three items as sanctions is to emphasize China’s determination to take countermeasures. After Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, we have conducted large-scale military exercises across the Taiwan Strait, and the role of military capabilities in the Taiwan issue has become more prominent. Making the “three cancellations” involving military matters the first three of the eight countermeasures against the U.S. in the second wave of sanctions is a clear demonstration of China’s resolve. The firmness of this determination is also reflected in the wording of the “three cancellations”: the last five countermeasures are “suspended”, which leaves room for restoration. Since the first three are “canceled”, although not without the possibility of restoration, the attitude is more powerful and resolute than the former.

In terms of the signals conveyed by the “three cancellations”, these three measures, unprecedented in nature, have displayed China’s resolute attitude on the Taiwan issue to the U.S. side: for China, the Taiwan issue is the core of the core, and China will do whatever it takes to achieve this.

Guancha.cn: How will the cancellation of these three mechanisms affect the U.S.?

Zhou Bo: I think the impact of the “three cancellations” is mainly on the political level, that is, to make the Americans realize the importance of the Taiwan issue to China. The “three cancellations” and the accompanying military actions are unprecedented in scale and intensity, and China has shown that there is no room for compromise on Taiwan. China is willing to go to war on this issue.

Guancha.cn: How do you think the U.S. might respond to these countermeasures?

Zhou Bo: According to the U.S. side, the U.S. may conduct some show of force operations near Taiwan to show that it is not weak.

China’s military actions have far exceeded U.S. expectations. China’s previous responses to Taiwan have been mainly diplomatic protests (such as canceling meetings), with the exception of large military response involving missile tests in 1995 and 1996. This time, the scale, scope, and intensity of China’s actions are unprecedented, far surpassing the two missile tests in the 1990s. This has triggered strong international reaction.

Americans are not willing to give Taiwan up nor is it willing to go to war over Taiwan. As a result, America has taken symbolic actions, such as at one point saying it would send an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Strait. Although neither China nor the U.S. has the stomach for war at the moment, the danger of misfiring has not been completely eliminated.

For example, the U.S. recently announced that the USS Ronald Reagan aircraft carrier would cross the Taiwan Strait “in a few weeks”. It was against this background that the U.S. tried to “cast stones and explore the road” to test China’s attitude and reaction to the Taiwan issue.

The legal justification of the U.S. is that UNCLOS gives all countries the freedom of navigation and overflight in international waters and air. From this point of view, if the U.S. strictly adheres to the convention, that is, the warships simply pass through the Taiwan Strait, the action itself is not illegal. However, we need to note that, according to UNCLOS, the freedom of navigation and overflight is premised on, with due regard to the obligations of the interests of coastal nations, and must be for peaceful purposes.

So. it would be a clear breach of international conventions for the U.S. to show, as it has done before, that this is intended to provoke China. In addition, both sides can have their own “flexible” interpretations of the term “for peaceful purposes”. The U.S. may claim that “safeguarding the status quo across the Taiwan Straits” is also for “peace”, but we obviously believe that this is not for peaceful purposes.

The most fundamental reason for the “idle shot” of the USS Ronald Reagan, in addition to the cautious consideration of the U.S. side, is that the balance of power between China and the U.S. has changed significantly. During the Taiwan Strait crisis in 1995-1996, the U.S. tested the waters for two weeks, sending two aircraft carrier strike groups, the USS Nimitz and the USS Independence, to sail near the Taiwan Strait. However, this time, given that China’s military strength has been greatly improved and that it was short on justification, its carrier could no longer enter the area freely and have its fighter jets take off.  In fact, the carrier did not even entered the opening of the Taiwan Strait, even though it was said to be “on call”.

Guancha.cn: Under the current circumstances, how is the future direction of the relationship between the Chinese and U.S. militaries likely to develop? For example, do the “three cancellations” mean that China and the U.S. can take some kind of military action on their own in the future without informing the other side?

Zhou Bo: That’s true to some extent. The reduction of communication mechanisms between the two sides will inevitably lead to less knowledge of each other and more uncertainties in the military-to-military relationship.

In a sense, the Chinese side’s intention is to force the U.S. side to take a more cautious approach to the Taiwan issue by reducing the communication mechanism—since the Chinese mainland has made it clear that there is no room for concessions on the Taiwan issue, the U.S. will have to be more cautious in assessing the possible risks of any future action on Taiwan before taking it.US needs to think twice before making any moves.

Of course, the “three cancellations” does not mean that there has been no contact between the Chinese and U.S. militaries, still less that the situation is out of control. Although, on the surface, several major communication mechanisms between China and the U.S. have been suspended, there is still a “thread” of communication between the two militaries. When the two sides have the need and the will, the two militaries can still communicate with each other through hotlines and embassies to avoid irreversible miscalculation.