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June 08, 2021

King Seeks Safeguards to Avoid “Accidental Conflict” with China

WASHINGTON, D.C. – In today’s hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, U.S. Senator Angus King (I-Maine) emphasized the danger of accidental conflict due to the lack of direct communication between the U.S. and Chinese governments and militaries – citing the unlearned lessons from history that the two nations need to heed. During his questioning, Senator King underscored that a line of direct communication between high level commanders on both sides could diffuse and prevent an incipient crisis. In an exchange with top U.S.-Chinese relations expert, Dr. Evan Medeiros, Senator King laid out his concerns:

SENATOR KING: “Mr. Medeiros, why is it that the Chinese are reluctant to establish a kind of hotline, red phone, [military-to-military] connection because it seems to me that the danger – one of the grave dangers both of the countries face is an accidental conflict. I just checked on Amazon – there are 11 copies left of the Chinese language version of the Guns of August [Barbara Tuchman’s Pulitzer-winning book examining the origins of  World War I] and perhaps we ought to send those to the Chinese Politburo, because this business of not wanting to be on the other end of the phone if there’s an incident in the South China Sea makes no sense to me, from the point of view of China, let alone our country.”

Mr. MEDEIROS: “Thank you, Senator – excellent question. And I strongly support your information operation of sending Chinese language versions of the Guns of August to the Politburo standing committee, maybe we can work on that, after this hearing. But more specifically, actually the channels of crisis communications exist. In 2008, a defense telephone link was created between the Pentagon and the Ministry of Defense in China. The issue is less the nonexistence of channels, it’s the fact that the Chinese refuse to use them… I worry that it’s going to take a Cuban Missile Crisis-like situation for the Chinese leadership to appreciate how important crisis communication is and encourage them to move away from such stilted view of how to use these channels because the interactions between the Chinese military and the U.S. military in East Asia are growing in frequency and in complexity and if we don’t have the right measures in place, the risk of crisis is growing and then because of the weak communication channels our ability to manage that crisis is significantly constrained.”

In addition to Mr. Medeiros, Penner Family Chair in Asia Studies in the School of Foreign Service and the Cling Family Distinguished Fellow in U.S.-China Studies Georgetown University, today’s hearing featured testimony from Matt Pottinger, Former Assistant To The President And Deputy National Security Advisor, Distinguished Visiting Fellow, The Hoover Institution Stanford University; Dr. Sheena Chestnut Greitens, Associate Professor, Lyndon B. Johnson School Of Public Affairs University Of Texas At Austin; Bonnie Glaser, Director, Asia Program, German Marshall Fund Of The United States.

As Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Subcommittee on Strategic Forces – which oversees the United States’ nuclear posture worldwide – and a member of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, Senator King is recognized as a thoughtful voice on national security and foreign policy issues in the Senate. In addition to his committee work, Senator King serves on the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, the Senate North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Observer Group, and is co-chair of the Cyberspace Solarium Commission. He voted in favor of the Senate’s passage of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for Fiscal Year 2021, which includes several funding and policy priorities advocated for by Senator King to support military facilities and communities in Maine and advance the national defense. The legislation – containing 25 bipartisan cybersecurity recommendations from the Cyberspace Solarium Commission – became law earlier this year after Senator King and the overwhelming majority of his colleagues voted to override former President Trump’s veto.


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