Part of the problem is the way that China’s armed forces work. The Communist Party is present throughout the military hierarchy. Its political commissars often wield as much power ascommanders who are genuine soldiers. Especially at higher levels, Chinese officers can move only at the speed of a committee. But that is no excuse for China’s habit of unplugging the phone. Swift communication may not end acrisis, but it can certainly reduce the danger of tensions flaring up over a misunderstanding.
Mercifully, when Barack Obama was president, the two countries managed to establish some rules for managing close encounters between their ships and planes. That has led to fewer near collisions in the air and at sea. But that still falls short. China’s relentless beefing up of its military forces has created an urgent need for wider-ranging agreements. Pentagon officials say China is arming its air force with nuclear weapons. That would give China a complete “triad” of nuclear weaponry, launchable from the air, land and sea. Yet the two armed forces have not held nuclear talks in over ten years. Even the Soviet Union agreed to give warnings about ballistic-missile tests. The Chinese refuse to consider such a confidence-building measure,despite the growing importance of missiles to both countries.
On a visit to Washington, DC, in November China’s defence minister, Wei Fenghe, said that communication must be strengthened. It is good that China recognises this. But all too often the country lets pique over unconnected business disrupt military contacts. In 2018 it cancelled multiple high-level talks, including an embryonic dialogue between senior military officers. Not since the cold war has it been so crucial for global peace for two defence establishments to talk.