US Navy personnel pull down an American flag during a maritime exercise on the USS John S McCain in the South China Sea near waters claimed by Beijing in a file photo. Photo: AFP/Noel Celis

Top US and Chinese generals have recently doubled down on military-to-military diplomacy after months of rising tensions, as the two sides bid to head off conflict in the hotly contested South China Sea.

In recent weeks, the two superpowers have teetered on the brink of confrontation, including over an incident in which China reportedly intercepted US littoral combat ships roaming in Beijing-claimed waters.

Against the backdrop of a bitter trade war and diplomatic spats over pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which China believes the US has covertly backed, the Pentagon and People’s Liberation Army (PLA) now seem determined to de-escalate on the South China Sea front.

In early December, Generals Li Zuocheng and Mark Milley, who head respectfully the PLA and Pentagon, held an apparently fateful phone call to explore ways to defuse tensions and avoid an unwanted conflict.

Though officially described as an “introductory” courtesy call, the timing and tone of the phone conversation suggests a shared concern between the US and Chinese military establishments on the potential for miscalculation and crossed wires.

The two generals, according to the Pentagon, vowed to jointly explore the “opportunity to discuss building a constructive and results-oriented defense relationship.”

US Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley (L) and China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) General Li Zuocheng (R) in Beijing, August 16, 2016. Photo: AFP/Pool

“The two military leaders agreed on the value of a productive dialogue, effectively managing differences and cooperation on areas of common ground,” according to the Pentagon’s statement.

That marks at least a rhetorical turn. Recent Pentagon strategy papers have overtly identified China as a strategic rival, both in the South China Sea and other Asian theaters.

The Pentagon’s National Defense Strategy paper in 2018 referred to China – as well as Russia – as a “revisionist power” that “seeks to create a world consistent with their authoritarian models.”

In June, the US discreetly created a new job consistent with that view: the deputy assistant secretary of defense for China.

The new office is designed to craft and maintain the military-to-military relationship with China, something US officials said at the time top Chinese military officials want to be a “stabilizing force” in overall relations.

In July this year, a Chinese defense white paper, its first since 2015, acknowledged that China is in a superpower contest with the US in Asia and cast America as an aggressive and destabilizing force in Asia, including via its freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea.

Milley has been tapped before to diplomatically defuse tensions with China. In 2016, Milley was involved in shuttle diplomacy with China to calm tensions following a Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) at The Hague ruling against the legal basis of China’s wide-ranging claims to the sea.

The case was initiated by the Philippines, a key US ally, with full support of Washington and other likeminded powers advocating for a rules-based legal order to the sea disputes, where China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei have competing claims.

At the time, the Pentagon’s top brass were determined to prevent a dangerous escalation stemming from the arbitral ruling, while at the same time the then-president Barack Obama’s administration was calling on China to abide by the judgement.

Now, as the US enters a contentious election season, and President Donald Trump officially facing impeachment proceedings, the Pentagon seems determined to put relations with China on a more even keel, while at the same time ramping up its naval presence in the Western Pacific.

The conversation between the two military chiefs took place shortly after China banned American warships from docking in Hong Kong, a retaliatory measure following Trump’s signing of the punitive Human Rights and Democracy Act in defiance of Beijing’s warning against interference in its domestic affairs.

The new law places the US firmly in league with the anti-government protests in the Chinese city-state, requiring the US government, among other things, to punish Chinese disinformation and intimidation tactics against pro-democracy protests.

Chinese authorities said that the newly-signed Hong Kong law is tantamount to “meddling” in its domestic affairs and has warned of dire “consequences” for America’s defiance, without elaborating what form these may take.

Chinese PLAN shipmen during an operation in the South China Sea. Photo: AFP via Getty

There are thus growing concerns among analysts and observers that deteriorating diplomatic and economic relations could spill over into the strategic realm, with potentially devastating consequences for both superpower sides.

The phone call, according to a source close to the PLA’s top brass, “means military ties between the PLA and their American counterparts will remain stable even though [China] banned American warships and aircraft from making port visits in Hong Kong.”

“The ban on port calls is just a diplomatic and political gesture to pacify the Chinese public after Trump signed the Hong Kong bill. The PLA doesn’t really want to fight with the Americans,” the same source told the South China Morning Post.

For years, military brass in both countries has sought to enhance direct diplomacy and avoid unwanted clashes through the development of various mechanisms for institutionalized conflict prevention and management.

Building on the legacy of Soviet-American managed rivalry in maritime Asia, most especially through mechanisms such as the Incidents at Sea (INCSEA) protocol of the 1970s, the Pentagon has recently pushed for similar measures with the PLA’s burgeoning and increasingly assertive naval forces.

US carrier strike groups in an exercise in the South China Sea. Photo: US Navy

Apart from establishing direct hotlines and regular mutual visits by Chinese and American top military brass, the Pentagon – along with other relevant regional players – has pushed for various confidence-building measures, including a Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES).

More recently, the Pentagon has pushed for a similar protocol for aerial encounters with China’s jet fighters.

Until last year, the Pentagon even invited China to attend the US-led Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) exercises in its own waters, despite concerns about possible Chinese espionage and illegal surveillance activities.

Now, under the command of strong-willed and temperamental leaders, both the US and Chinese military establishments seem keen to pull back from the brink in the South China Sea – though observers agree the potential for error and miscalculation still runs high.

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