Senior Colonel Zhou Bo (ret) is a senior fellow of the Centre for International Security and Strategy at Tsinghua University and a China Forum expert
When US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen arrived at Beijing’s international airport on July 6, something rare appeared – a rainbow in the sky after a shower. American ambassador to China Nicolas Burns wasted no time in pointing this out to a smiling Yellen. When he met Yellen, Chinese Premier Li Qiang also mentioned the rainbow, saying, “I think there is more to China-US relations than just wind and rain…we will surely see more rainbows after going through the wind and rain.”
The question is how much wind and rain we will have to confront before we see a rainbow again. While there seems to have been small advances in the diplomatic and economic fields, there is no sign of “de-risking” in one crucial area – communication between the two militaries.
There was a time when both sides believed that the military-to-military relationship could even serve as a ballast stone amid political or economic tension. Such optimism is long gone. In the wake of then US House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan, Beijing responded with days of military exercises near and around the island and suspended US-China military-to-military interactions.
The question is even if the People’s Liberation Army wishes to resume dialogue now, it is simply impossible. General Li Shangfu, now Chinese defence minister and state councillor, used to head the PLA’s Equipment Development Department. He has been under US sanctions since 2018 over the purchase of combat aircraft and an air-defence missile system from Rosoboronexport, Russia’s main arms exporter.
This is ridiculous. China’s military trade with Russia was not in violation of any international regime and such trade between two sovereign states has nothing to do with the United States.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore in early June, it was sad to see General Li and American Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin briefly greet each other and then sit stone-faced at the same table without making eye contact. Four days before the dialogue, Beijing declined the Pentagon’s invitation for a meeting between the Chinese defence minister and his American counterpart in Singapore.
If history provides useful lessons, contemporary American history could be read in another way – how its sanctions on others have repeatedly failed. The US sanctions on North Korea and Cuba didn’t succeed in regime change. Nor did they work in changing the behaviours of Myanmar, Nicaragua, Venezuela, Syria, Yemen and Iran. The sanctions on Russia since the war in Ukraine, however massive, have stymied but not seriously crippled the Russian economy.
A frivolous sanction on China’s defence minister is closing a window that both countries would benefit from keeping open. Just imagine that during the five years of his tenure – longer than the tenure of an American president – China’s defence minister won’t be able to visit the United States and he won’t invite his American counterpart to visit China. There will be few, if any, exchanges at other levels.
Imagine for another moment that the Chinese and American military leaders don’t talk on a hotline which was established in 2008 and is supposed to play a crucial role in the most dangerous situations, be it in the South China Sea or in the Taiwan Strait.
At the Shangri-La Dialogue, when asked about a Chinese navy ship aircraft intercepting a US military vessel in the Taiwan Strait, Li asked people to think why all the problems occurred near China and not near other countries.
Admittedly, the military-to-military dialogue between the two countries sometimes resembles a conversation between people talking at cross-purposes, but it is better than no talk at all. The absence of communication will inevitably lead to misunderstanding and miscalculation.
Such a situation wasn’t even seen during the Cold War. In spite of absolute hostility, the two superpowers maintained open lines of communication and established a series of confidence-building measures, some of which, like the New START nuclear arms control treaty, are still in place, despite the Ukraine war.
Washington suspects that Beijing is using no communication as a strategy for reaping benefits. At the Shangri-La Dialogue, Austin said, “dialogue is not a reward. It is a necessity”. But for Beijing, American sanctions constitute a precondition itself and create a sour atmosphere even before talks start.
The US position that the sanctions do not technically prohibit a meeting between Austin and Li and therefore there is no need to remove them, is a textbook example of American hypocrisy.
Technically speaking, lifting sanctions on Li is not very difficult in that the sanction is an executive order that the Biden administration can revoke, but it might be politically challenging for US President Joe Biden, who doesn’t wish to appear weak towards Beijing in the eyes of China hawks, especially before the election in 2024.
There has been much discussion of whether we have slipped into a new cold war. But if the two largest militaries don’t talk to each other in the next five years, this situation would be more dangerous than anytime during the Cold War.
When they met in November last year, Biden and President Xi Jinping agreed on putting a “floor” under the relationship to ensure that competition did not veer into conflict. For that to happen – to loosely paraphrase Austin’s remarks – lifting sanctions on the Chinese defence minister is not a reward, it is a necessity. And the right time is now.