President Joe Biden's meeting with Xi Jinping on Wednesday will largely focus on encouraging the Chinese leader to restore communications between the US Defense Department and the People's Liberation Army after a nine-month rift caused by the downing of a spy belonging to Beijing. balloon.
The call to resume regular communications, as well as informal exchanges, is aimed at preventing any single incident involving the two soldiers from spiraling out of control in what could become a shooting war between nuclear-armed nations.
Mr Biden and Xi are due to meet on Wednesday evening when both leaders are in San Francisco for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders' summit, their first interaction since their bilateral meeting on the sidelines of last year's summit G20 summit in Indonesia.
The meeting, which will be held at an as-yet-undisclosed location, follows February's controversy over the spy balloon that flew over the continental United States in February.
It will cap months of cautious diplomatic efforts by a range of senior administration officials to lay the groundwork for resuming head-of-state talks after the hot air balloon incident, which exacerbated tensions sparked by a visit by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August 2022 in Taiwan.
The two leaders are to discuss what White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre described in a statement as “issues” in bilateral relations, as well as “the continued importance of maintaining open lines of communication and a range of regional and global issues.”
But administration officials and experts say the benign, diplomatic language used by the White House glosses over the true stakes: a nine-month end to no communication between the US and Chinese defense facilities that has left the two superpowers at risk of being dragged into violent conflict. fire.
Biden himself provided a window into his thinking just hours before departing Washington, D.C., when he answered questions after presenting remarks on this year's National Climate Assessment.
Asked what he would consider a “success” from Wednesday's meeting with Mr. Xi, Mr. Biden replied: “To get back to a normal course of correspondence: being able to pick up the phone and talk to each other when there is a crisis. , to be able to make sure that our soldiers still have contact with each other.”
What he described – senior US military officers are in regular contact with their counterparts in the DPRK – was considered unexpected just last year, before Ms Pelosi's trip to Taiwan sparked uproar in Beijing and before the balloon shutdown led Chinese officials to cut off contacts altogether. , despite numerous calls from the White House, State Department and senior Defense Department officials to arrange meetings or calls between Pentagon chiefs and PLA bosses.
A more infamous example of these informal exchanges took place during the days of the Trump administration, when General Mark Milley, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, contacted his PLA counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, in response to what he described to the Commission Senate Armed Services Committee as “information related” indicating that Chinese officials feared then-President Donald Trump would order a surprise attack on China.
In testimony delivered on September 28, 2021, eight months after Mr Trump left, General Milley told senators: “I know, I am sure, that President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese and it was my responsibility to convey presidential orders and intent … my task at the time was to de-escalate. My message again was consistent: stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”
When news of General Milley's talks with General Lee first emerged in a book by journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, Mr Trump and other Republicans accused him of committing treason and more recently the disgraced former president called the now retired general to be killed.
But Jon Wolfsthal, global risk director at the Federation of American Scientists, said The independent that General Milley's approach to General Li was exactly the kind of thing Mr. Biden hopes Mr. Xi will agree to when they meet tomorrow.
“What the US has tried to do under the Biden administration is to create a regular dialogue between the military and officers. We've had contacts with the State Department, we've had conversations about the second and the 1.5 track, but it's been extremely difficult to get the PLA to sit down with the US military… so they can have an open line of communication so that if something goes wrong on the side, they can pick up the phone and call their counterpart,” he said.
Mr. Wolfsthal also said the State Department has been pushing for years to establish so-called warm lines — open channels of communication between Foggy Bottom and Beijing — similar to those the US had with Russia's foreign ministry after the 1987 accord. between the US State Department and Beijing. the Soviet Union established Nuclear Risk Reduction Centers in each respective country.
Other open lines between the US and the Russian defense establishment include the Washington-Moscow Direct Communication Link—the “direct line” between the Pentagon and the Kremlin created in 1963 after the Cuban Missile Crisis—and single-purpose deconfliction channels created to prevent mishaps between Russian and US forces in Syria and Russia's war-torn region of Ukraine.
A senior administration official who briefed reporters on Biden's plans for the meeting said the president would push Xi to agree to create “a comprehensive set of military-to-military interactions.”
“That means dialogue that the defense secretary would have with his counterpart,” as well as “commander discussions and operator engagements” between U.S. and Chinese soldiers, sailors and airmen at various levels.
The official added that “certain mechanisms that were used during the Cold War” could be “redesigned to ensure that when we and Chinese forces operate in closer proximity, we have greater confidence that in a crisis or if there is an inadvertence, we will to exist is the ability to communicate”.
“We believe this is responsible. We have been a superpower for a long time. We understand the importance of these things that can prevent an unintended escalation or crisis,” the official said.
So far, the lack of such facilities and the absence of a permanent link between Beijing and Washington has not caused undue anxiety for nuclear proliferation or defense experts because, until recently, China did not keep nuclear weapons ready in the same way which the US and Russia have since the days of the Cold War.
But Mr. Wolfsthal said The independent that China's military posture in numerous Indo-Pacific hotspots had raised the stakes and made opening communications between US forces and China all the more vital as Mr Biden pursued what he described as a “strategic rivalry”. with Beijing and as the US continued to engage with Chinese forces during operations in international waters.
“I think the question here is whether President Xi and President Biden can get their respective militaries to have a regular communication process … whether they're going to meet regularly and say, ‘Look, this is why we're doing freedom of naval operations in your country. these areas. These are our red lines, this is what we think would be useful to achieve together,” he said. “In a crisis, these things can make the difference between escalation and de-escalation.”
A veteran Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, New Jersey Sen. Robert Menendez, offered a similar assessment when approached for comment by The independent on Tuesday.
Mr. Menendez, who chaired the upper house's foreign affairs committee until he resigned last month after being charged with bribery and conspiracy to act as a foreign agent for Egypt, said he thought it was “very important” for Biden to pursue restoring ties. .
“We cannot afford an accident or a subsequent incident that could escalate into something bigger. We need to restore it and I hope that will be achieved with the President,” he said.
And despite Mr Trump's earlier condemnation of General Milley for talking to his Chinese rival, Mr Biden's effort to restore military channels between Washington and Beijing drew praise from the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator James. Risch of Idaho.
said Mr. Risch The independent on Tuesday that opening those relations should be a “high priority” for Mr. Biden and for the US.
“One of the things we worry about the most is a mistake. And if you have good open communication with the other side, at least you'll avoid a mistake,” he said. “I think it's important. I'm not sure the Chinese are as convinced as we are about how important it is, but we have a long history and long experience with it, and it's a good thing to do.”
Eric Garcia contributed reporting from Capitol Hill