"We believe in the importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the United States and the PRC in order to responsibly manage the relationship," declared Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder, Pentagon spokesman, in a February 7 statement. "Unfortunately, the PRC has declined our request. Our commitment to open lines of communication will continue."
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had tried to arrange a telephone conversation with China's Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, after the February 4 shoot-down of the Chinese spy balloon, but the Chinese official refused to take the call.
Austin must now be accustomed to being rebuffed by Wei. In November in Cambodia at a meeting of defense ministers, Austin proposed reopening communication channels that Beijing had ended after then Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Taipei. The Chinese so far have not replied.
"Since the US's irresponsible wrongdoings failed to create an atmosphere for communication between the militaries of the two countries, China does not accept the US's proposal for a defense chiefs' call," said Defense Ministry spokesperson Tan Kefei in the words of China's semi-official Global Times.
Good. The United States should stop trying to talk to China.
There are many things wrong about Austin's attempts to communicate with Wei. As an initial matter, Wei's rank is far below Austin's. As defense minister, he is a central government official with little or no authority over the Chinese military. The People's Liberation Army does not report to the Chinese government. It reports to the Communist Party.
The Communist Party official with the comparable rank to Austin is Xi Jinping, in his role as chairman of the Party's Central Military Commission. Our defense secretary should insist, when he talks, to talk to the people in charge.
Americans love to talk. "I do hope that the United States and China can find a way to have a dialogue on these issues," said Leon Panetta, a defense secretary during the Obama years, to Andrea Mitchell on February 9 on her MSNBC show, referring to the spy balloon incident.
As evident from Panetta's comment, Americans are big on "dialogue." They believe, as an article of faith, that there must be communication to maintain relations. In fact, communication with China has over the course of decades made matters worse.
How so? American attempts at dialogue empower the worst elements in the Chinese political system by showing everyone else that bad conduct works. The cycle is well known in Beijing: China engages in belligerent conduct and America then tries to placate the hostile regime. Desperate attempts to talk make America look like a supplicant.
Austin unfortunately reinforced that image after the shoot-down. As James Fanell of the Geneva Centre for Security Policy told Gatestone, if Secretary Austin was going to call anyone in Beijing, it should not have been after the balloon shoot-down, thereby making it look like America was trying to justify its action. Austin, if he were to call, should have done so as the craft approached U.S. airspace in late January.
Americans are focused on making sure that everyone understands each other. "I think it's important that we try to avoid a miscalculation," Panetta told Mitchell. "It's important that the United States and China at least develop a process to try to work together on these kinds of issues to avoid what could be an instance that could have us in a war."
A "process"? Americans already have many consultative processes with the Chinese military, such as those established in a 2008 agreement on a military-to-military hotline and the September 2015 Memorandum of Understanding on the same topic. The People's Liberation Army has continued to ignore communication mechanisms.
"The People's Republic of China cannot be trusted to comply with any agreement they sign," notes Fanell, also a retired U.S. Navy captain who served as director of Intelligence and Information Operations of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.
Chinese leaders do not want to have communications with foreigners until they settle on their positions after internal bargaining and deliberations. They are, in the words of the Associated Press, "suspicious" of Americans "talking their way out of repercussions for a U.S. provocation." No agreement can get Chinese officials to engage in dialogue when they consider dialogue to not be in their interests. In short, China will talk only when it wants to.
What should Washington do now?
America should reverse the dynamic and break off communication with China. Severing dialogue could intimidate Chinese leaders and officials. What will Beijing think when normally eager-to-talk Americans do not call and even refuse to answer their phones?
Moreover, the U.S. can up the pressure by ordering Beijing to close its remaining four consulates and to strip down its overly large embassy to just the ambassador. Ordering the closures and expulsions now will, among other things, emphasize that America is no longer willing to tolerate dangerous behavior.
If these steps do not work, Washington can end other ties — trade, investment, technical cooperation — that China needs for its struggling economy, something the U.S. should do anyway.
Are these steps risky?
Yes, but after decades of misguided policy every option is risky, and the riskiest policy of all is to continue with an approach that created this perilous situation in the first place.
China's officials say that America no longer deters them. Americans need to take them at their word and try something different to reestablish deterrence.
The brazen balloon intrusion shows the utter disrespect of the United States by China's regime. We do not know why the Chinese thought they could get away with such an act, but attempts at dialogue cannot solve the problem.
In any event, Americans may wonder what is the point of talking with a Chinese regime that is not prepared to deal with their country in good faith.
The Chinese are masters in the art of getting what they want by not talking. Americans need to learn this skill as well.
Gordon G. Chang is the author of The Coming Collapse of China, a Gatestone Institute distinguished senior fellow, and a member of its Advisory Board.