Phone-call controversy exposes need

2021-09-17 China Daily Editor:Xue Lingqiao

The reported phone calls by the U.S. chairman of the joint chiefs of staff to a Chinese military official highlight the need to "improve crisis management mechanisms" between the two nations' militaries, according to one expert.

General Mark Milley, appointed by former president Donald Trump and retained by the Biden administration, covertly called the official in China twice to reassure him that the U.S. would not attack in the waning days of the Trump administration and pledged to relay advance notice should Trump order an attack.

The upcoming book Peril by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa revealed details surrounding the controversy of the "secret" calls. Trump called Milley's actions treasonous, and some Republican lawmakers urged President Joe Biden to fire him.

Biden expressed "great confidence" in Milley. White House press secretary Jen Psaki rejected calls for his dismissal, saying the same critics "were silent" as Trump "fomented an insurrection" at the Capitol on Jan 6.

In a bristling statement criticizing Milley on Tuesday, Trump said: "For the record, I never even thought of attacking China — and China knows that. The people that fabricated the story are sick and demented, and the people who print it are just as bad."

Douglas Paal, a scholar in the Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, noted that Woodward sensationalized and distorted reports of Milley's calls and that he agrees with Biden about the propriety of the calls.

"Biden is right, and Trump is wrong. Milley proceeded through proper interagency channels and conveyed appropriate messages," Paal told China Daily, adding that the secret calls "[were] contained in the spirit of the communication".

But in Paal's view, the fundamental issue between the U.S. and China is not miscommunication; yet, poor communications do not help if the most important bilateral relationship is to be repaired.

Paal believes that dialogue was insufficient between the U.S. and China under Trump's presidency.

Simultaneously, the Biden administration has accomplished significantly less than it should have, and in some areas, less than the previous administration, Paal said.

"Things were bad under Trump, but the defense segment did a more appropriate job than the rest of the Trump administration. Unfortunately, the Biden administration has not made headway to improving military-to-military communication, for reasons of protocol that are hard to understand and normally, regularly resolved," Paal said.

Paal expressed hope that the White House would reach the same level of communication as the Trump administration's Department of Defense. "So far, as much as I can tell, it has not," he said.

"There seems to be a desire in China to improve crisis management mechanisms. I hope the Biden people seize this apparent opportunity and improve direct communication," Paal said.

According to Max Boot, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, "Milley had no choice but to do what he did" in a Washington Post article. "Milley should be commended for acting to limit an unhinged commander in chief's ability to overthrow the government or start a war."

Milley's spokesman stated on Wednesday that Milley acted within his authority as the president's and secretary of defense's most senior uniformed adviser, arguing that the contacts were made to avoid conflicts.

"The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs regularly communicates with Chiefs of Defense across the world, including with China and Russia. These conversations remain vital to improving mutual understanding of U.S. national security interests, reducing tensions, providing clarity and avoiding unintended consequences or conflict.

"His calls with the Chinese and others in October and January were in keeping with these duties and responsibilities conveying reassurance in order to maintain strategic stability. All calls from the chairman to his counterparts, including those reported, are staffed, coordinated and communicated with the Department of Defense and the interagency," the statement said.

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