The Implications of China’s PLA Declining to Meet With the US Military

January 18, 2021 Updated: January 18, 2021

Commentary

Amid heightened tensions in the South China Sea, U.S. and Chinese military chiefs held talks on crisis communication via a teleconference on Oct. 28 and 29 last year. A subsequent Chinese report said that China would continue to act consistent with initiating “no conflict or confrontation.” The U.S. Department of Defense also mentioned the Crisis Communications Working Group in a press release on Oct. 29. It was the first time ever that such talks have been held between China and the United States.

Beginning in May 2020, the United States increased its deployment of warships in the Western Pacific in response to China’s increased military activity in the South China Sea. Because of the disparity in strength, China doesn’t dare to openly confront the U.S. Navy and is very worried about possible incidents.

After President Donald Trump appointed the new acting Secretary of Defense, Christopher Miller, people have worried whether this might interrupt communication between the U.S. and Chinese militaries. The senior Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials should also be quite worried. However, what I didn’t expect was that the Chinese regime just rejected a rare opportunity to communicate with the U.S. military, which seems quite odd.

The Operational Maritime and Aviation Safety Dialogue

At a press conference held by the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on Dec. 17, a Russian reporter asked: “The Commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement that the Chinese delegation didn’t show up at the virtual senior-level meeting related to the military maritime consulting agreement. I wonder if you could confirm this and explain why the Chinese delegation refused to participate in this meeting?”

The Chinese Ministry spokesperson, Wang Wenbin, answered briefly: “Based on what we have learned, the United States bears full responsibility for the fact that the 2020 China-U.S. military maritime consultative agreement meetings have not been held yet. … You may ask China’s Ministry of National Defense for more details.”

China’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that China was absent from the meeting, which is indeed surprising. If the U.S. military had not issued a statement, no one would have known that this had happened. At a time when U.S.-China relations are further deteriorating, what exactly is the meaning of the CCP’s move?

On Dec. 16, the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command issued a press release, titled “PLA a ‘No-Show’ for Operational Maritime and Aviation Safety Dialogue.”

The U.S. Indo-Pacific Command also sent out pictures of U.S. military representatives waiting in front of the TV screen for the CCP military representatives to dial in. The press release stated: “The People’s Liberation Army [PLA] declined to participate in the virtual Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) Work Group and Flag Officer Plenary session with the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command scheduled for Dec. 14-16, 2020.”

“The United States and People’s Republic of China [PRC] have met regularly since 1998 to conduct the MMCA dialogue as a consultation mechanism to strengthen military maritime safety, to improve operational safety in the air and sea, and reduce risk between our two militaries.”

“‘The PRC’s refusal to show up to MMCA is another example that China does not honor its agreements, and this should serve as a reminder to all nations as they pursue agreements with China going forward,’ said Adm. Phil Davidson, the Commander for U.S. Indo-Pacific Command.”

The press release also stated, “The purpose of MMCA is to review unsafe military incidents that have occurred between U.S. and PLA forces; assess rules of behavior between the U.S. and PRC for safety in the air and at sea; and discuss operational approaches to improve maritime and aviation safety in accordance with international law.”

In order to prevent further incidents, the CCP should be willing to participate in such meetings. This is also a rare communication channel between the United States and China. By deliberately not participating, does the CCP mean to suggest an intention to decouple or even seek battle?

The USS Ronald Reagan and USS Nimitz
The USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76, front) and USS Nimitz (CVN 68, rear) Carrier Strike Groups sail together in formation, in the South China Sea, on July 6, 2020. (Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Jason Tarleton/U.S. Navy via AP)

In ancient and modern times, in China and around the world, even if two countries are about to go to war, there would usually be final negotiations in an effort to avoid war. But the PLA has blocked communication. Are they really ready to go to war?

The CCP’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs tried to pass the buck to its Ministry of National Defense. How did the PLA respond?

The PLA shifted the blame on its U.S. counterpart.

“The meetings were not held as scheduled because the U.S. side didn’t abide by a consensus reached between the two sides and the responsibility entirely lies on the U.S. side,” Senior Captain Liu Wensheng, spokesman of the People’s Liberation Army Navy, said in a statement published on the Navy’s WeChat account.

According to Liu, the Chinese side on Nov. 18 provided the U.S. side with a proposal of topics and arrangements for the meeting, but the United States ignored it.

“The U.S. side persisted in pushing its unilateral topic ideas, arbitrarily compressing the length of the annual meetings, changing the nature of the annual meetings, and pressuring China to participate in the meetings when the two sides had not yet agreed on the topics,” Liu said.

Based on Liu’s statement, both the CCP and the United States should have had topics and issues prepared, but the PLA disagreed and thus declined to meet. This should be seen as the main cause of why the meeting didn’t happen. As for the other two reasons, such as the length and nature of the meeting, those were just arbitrary excuses.

If the United States and China had already started discussions on Nov. 18, it’s now quite awkward after more than a month. Such communication meetings are not about reaching any agreements, but to inform each other of the situation and to express their respective concerns. This kind of open communication meeting should normally not be constrained, and all parties can make their statements. What kind of issues does the PLA have that causes it to react so strongly as to be totally unwilling to discuss them?

Even if the PLA is unwilling to discuss issues, they can be addressed, recorded, and held for further discussion at a later time or be refuted. However, the PLA was not interested in engaging in a dialogue. In the end, it just refused to participate in the meeting with the U.S. military. But this sort of thing should not be decided by the PLA or the Ministry of National Defense. At the least, it would take the Central Military Commission to make the decision, or even for Chinese leader Xi Jinping to give it the nod directly. After all, this is a significant period for the U.S.-China relations, and no one should dare to do this casually.

When such a major controversial incident happened, the CCP had only the spokesperson of its navy explain it, which is equally intriguing. The U.S. military has made it clear that the content of communication includes sea and air. Both the navy and the air force should be represented. However, the Chinese Navy spoke on their behalf and took over air force matters. This clearly violates the command system of different services within the CCP. The PLA deliberately lowered the official level of response—it was to reduce the importance of the incident. It left itself some room for crisis management as the spokesperson of the Ministry of National Defense can come forward to correct the statement of the Navy spokesperson at any time.

Having taken such painstaking efforts, the CCP shows us that this matter is quite significant.

What Issues Might the PLA Worry About?

The United States and China have not disclosed at present what kind of topics the United States hoped to bring up that made the PLA refuse to participate in the meeting. In any case, this incident could have inadvertently increased U.S.-China military tensions.

Epoch Times Photo
An aerial view of uninhabited island of Spratlys in the disputed South China Sea on April 21, 2017. (Erik De Castro/Reuters)

Based on the analysis of the current situation, the U.S. military is likely to increase the topics on the South China Sea. The CCP is obviously unwilling to discuss such topics. Such a dispute will naturally be reported to the CCP’s Military Commission as well as to Xi Jinping. The refusal to participate in the meeting is likely a decision made by Xi.

This is reminiscent of the twists and turns we’ve witnessed in the U.S.-China trade war. The CCP has always adopted a delaying tactic: avoiding the negotiating table, and even backing out after the negotiation is completed; or new negotiations can be overturned again; and finally, under the tariffs, the CCP had to sign the first phase trade agreement but didn’t implement it.

It can be presumed that Xi has generally adopted the same procrastination strategy by trying not to discuss the South China Sea issue with the United States. He knows that the United States is likely to ask the CCP to abolish its military bases in the South China Sea. This should receive unanimous support from ASEAN countries and other major countries in the world. If the CCP does not agree, the two sides could turn against each other and a war would not be far off. Therefore, Xi decided not to participate in such a meeting. Wouldn’t the CCP appear to be more passive if the U.S. military gave an ultimatum?

If the U.S. military really issues an ultimatum, Southeast Asian countries will choose their sides, and most of them aren’t likely to be on the side of the CCP. Western countries will probably agree with the United States. The anti-communist alliance would take shape immediately. Maybe the coalition forces of all countries would soon gather in the South China Sea even though the U.S. forces alone are more than enough to clear the military bases on the South China Sea islands and reefs. The commission of navies from various countries would inevitably intensify the CCP’s isolation. How should Xi Jinping respond if the troops of various countries were deployed to the South China Sea?

If a war actually broke out, the CCP’s navy and air force would be wiped out, and the CCP’s regime will quickly collapse. But abandoning the South China Sea islands and reefs would suggest that the regime is weak, and it would be difficult for Xi to explain to the Party.

Perhaps it is this concern that led Xi to make the decision for the PLA to refuse to attend the meeting and delay such topics as much as possible. Or he is hoping that U.S. president-elect Joe Biden will unwind President Trump’s China policies, and the South China Sea issue may turn around for the better.

Today’s problem is actually a manifestation of Xi’s lack of strategic vision. On the surface, the seizure and militarization of the South China Sea islands and reefs seems to have achieved tactical advantages on the surface and achieved military expansion. However, a Chinese military magazine pointed out that these man-made islands are actually “easy to attack and difficult to defend,” and the CCP’s navy and air force support is beyond their reach. From a strategic point of view, in the case of poor military strength, barely maintaining these islands and reefs has actually become a burden for the CCP, or at best a poor decision, the report said.

Xi was so enthusiastic and spent a lot of money to build these islands and reefs, but now they have become a hot potato. It looks like they will ignite a military conflict between the United States and China, and the South China Sea could also become a battlefield for the CCP to engage against many countries.

The CCP’s strategic planning is very limited. We saw it during the trade war, and again when Chinese officials concealed the COVID-19 pandemic. Now it’s the South China Sea. Comparing the strategies of the U.S. and Chinese policymakers, it appears that the outcome for the CCP is doom, more or less.

Shen Zhou, a former design engineer for military vehicles, is a China observer who has paid close attention to the Chinese regime’s military expansion over the years. He started contributing to The Epoch Times in 2020.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.