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How Nongovernmental Actors Can Improve Crisis Management in U.S.-China Relations

By Rachel Esplin Odell


There are certain issues in the U.S.-China relationship where the two countries have fundamental differences and where permanent or complete resolution of those differences is unlikely in the short term. These issues include questions related to domestic political regime type, the status and military defense of Taiwan, and U.S. and Chinese military activities in the waters and airspace near China. There may be some room for dialogue on these matters, and long-term trends could create openings for deeper progress on some of these 

Rachel Esplin Odell is a Research Fellow in the East Asia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and an expert in U.S. strategy toward Asia, Chinese foreign policy, and maritime security. She received her PhD in political science from M.I.T.

issues. However, in the short term, bilateral government-to-government dialogue on these issues is either off the table or is unlikely to persuade either side to change its underlying, divergent preferences. The United States and China must find ways to manage such areas of the relationship to prevent them from triggering conflict between the two nations, and without fundamentally compromising each nation’s other underlying vital interests and perspectives.

Accepting Coexistence Despite Fundamental Political Disagreements

Perhaps at the most basic level, this requires both governments to accept the premise of coexistence — that despite fundamental disagreements over how countries should structure their political regimes and treat their citizens, neither the United States nor China will seek to overthrow the other’s government through military force or covert action. This does not mean either country will not strongly disagree with actions taken by the other toward its people and seek to influence those actions through persuasion, bargaining, and pressure.

In particular, the United States, despite all its own inconsistencies and shortcomings in the realm of human rights, has a commitment to liberal conceptions of human rights. It is thus unrealistic to expect that it will ignore human rights abuses in China. However, the U.S. government should not go so far as to convert its efforts to persuade or pressure China to implement domestic reforms related to political or human rights into broader efforts to undermine China’s domestic political regime.

Conversely, it is reasonable to expect that the Chinese government will seek to influence Americans to favor positions that serve China’s interests, including through traditional, transparent journalism and social media engagement. However, Beijing should not seek to emulate the tactics used by the Russian government in recent U.S. elections to interfere with democratic processes in the United States through hacking election systems or deliberately seeking to deepen divides and favor certain candidates over others through deceptive social media manipulation.

Improving Management of Potential Military and Security Crises

In the military and security realm, the United States and China have an urgent shared interest in preventing bilateral crises from emerging, managing emergent crises so they do not escalate into broader war, and resolving crises that do emerge so the damage caused by the crises, bilaterally and globally, can be contained and minimized. This shared interest is rooted in the fact that both nations desire to avoid war with one another, in recognition of the dire consequences that could result from military conflict between two major powers with nuclear weapons. Deliberate conflict between the two sides is not inconceivable, especially over Taiwan. However, for the most part the United States and China desire to avoid direct military conflict. They especially want to prevent crises from inadvertently escalating into conflict.

Better crisis management cannot in and of itself prevent conflict or war if either country is intent on engaging in conflict. Nor can crisis management resolve underlying disagreements about fundamental issues that could lead to conflict between the United States and China. There is thus a more primary need for restrained foreign policy decision-making in both countries and for broader strategic dialogue to explore ways the two sides can mutually accommodate one another’s interests.[1] Nonetheless, crisis management mechanisms can help prevent crises from inadvertently escalating to war through dynamics related to sunk costs, lost face, and misperceived signals.

Official U.S.-China Crisis Management Mechanisms

The U.S. and Chinese governments have made some progress in recent years toward establishing stronger crisis communication channels, which are key to effective communication during military crises. The Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1995-96 and the EP-3 incident in 2001, when a Chinese fighter jet collided with a U.S. spy plane near Hainan Island in the South China Sea, prompted both sides to start exploring ways to improve communication during crises. Two important mechanisms for military-to-military dialogue were established during the Clinton administration, including the Defense Consultative Talks (DCT) in 1996-97 and the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in 1997-98 (discussed in greater detail below).[2] A presidential hotline between the United states and China was also established in 1998. Discussions convened as part of the Defense Consultative Talks resulted in the establishment of a Defense Telephone Link in 2008 during the waning years of the Bush administration.[3] The DCT and MMCA mechanisms were also supplemented with the Defense Policy Coordination Talks (DPCT) established by the Bush administration in 2006.[4]

Ongoing military-to-military negotiations during the Obama administration eventually resulted in an agreement on Notification of Major Military Activities in 2014, wherein the United States and China agreed to notify each other when conducting major military exercises in the Asia-Pacific, issuing major military reports, and enacting major shifts in defense policies. This agreement also contained an annex that expressed a goal to increase mutual observation of military exercises and activities in order to “foster mutual trust and transparency in military affairs.”[5] The following year, the two sides negotiated another annex to this agreement that paved the way for more efficient and timely communication via the Defense Telephone Link during crises.[6] This agreement sought to address concerns that existing military-to-military links would be too unwieldy for use in a fast-moving, emergent crisis situation.[7]

Early in the Trump administration, the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and the People’s Liberation Army’s Joint Staff Department agreed upon a joint staff dialogue mechanism to facilitate high-level communication between three-star officers in each side’s military in order to reduce the risk of miscalculation in crises.[8] While this agreement established an important channel for direct communication between senior military leaders, some observers expressed skepticism that it would actually facilitate urgent communications during a crisis, as opposed to planned formal dialogue.[9] Partly in response to these concerns, the U.S. Department of Defense and Chinese Ministry of National Defense met to discuss crisis communication in October 2020. This meeting helped to kickstart deeper bilateral discussions about how the two sides can follow better crisis management principles and ensure the appropriate communication channels remain open during a potential future crisis. However, soon thereafter, planned meetings under the MMCA failed to materialize due to disagreements between the two sides about the proposed agenda for the meetings.[10]

Resumption of U.S.-China discussions under the MMCA and other existing military-to-military mechanisms, coupled with continued progress toward new understandings about crisis communication, are essential for the two countries to improve their crisis management capabilities. The two sides should also use these mechanisms as venues to commence negotiations over agreements for crisis management in the space, cyber, and nuclear domains, in addition to the air and maritime domains where initial agreements have already been reached (and which will be discussed further below).[11]

In addition, these military-to-military mechanisms should be combined with revitalized official dialogue between civilian officials in the United States and China about how the two sides could implement official crisis management mechanisms. Some of these mechanisms might entail internal improvements to crisis management processes within each nation’s bureaucracies and decision-making structures. Some should consist of strengthened bilateral communication channels and processes.

The Role of Nongovernmental Actors in Military and Security Crises

In keeping with the broader purpose of this report, however, this analysis will focus on the role that nongovernmental entities can play in promoting more effective crisis management. Civil society actors — which include businesses, universities, research institutes, media outlets, think tanks, labor unions, trade associations, advocacy organizations, religious institutions, and other nongovernmental organizations — can play an important role in crises, for better or worse. Many civil society actors in both the United States and China have an interest in the avoidance and wise management of bilateral crises between their respective countries. Disruptive crises and military conflict between the two nations would likely choke off much of the commercial and interpersonal exchange that is crucial to their ability to pursue their organizational objectives of generating profits, promoting innovation, or sharing ideas. These interests can motivate civil society actors to play a constructive role in preventing crises, facilitating bilateral communication during crises, and providing options for crisis de-escalation.

On the other hand, nongovernmental actors can also play a spoiler role, triggering crises through their actions. At times, this may occur inadvertently as these actors pursue their narrow interests in ways that affect the core interests of the other government, potentially provoking strong reactions. One such example includes fishing vessels or offshore oil companies conducting resource extraction in disputed waters in the South China Sea or East China Sea. At other times, some civil society actors may even intentionally engage in behavior that they know is likely to provoke crises or even conflict if they believe that such developments will promote their interests or objectives. For example, some nationalist organizations in Japan, Taiwan, and China have periodically endeavored to stage landings and plant their national flags on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, seeking, in part, to force their own government to take a more assertive stand in those disputes.

The degree of influence that civil society actors will be able to exert in a crisis for good or ill will be directly related to their degree of power in their countries. Such power is in turn a function of those actors’ relationships to decisionmakers in government and their influence in broader society. Accordingly, civil society actors may have more influence in a democratic society such as the United States, where there are fewer restrictions on the free expression and functioning of nongovernmental organizations, than in a country like China, where the government more tightly controls and monitors civil society. Nonetheless, there is the potential for actors outside of government to play a role in crisis management in both the United States and China, though the ways they do so will differ in each country.

The following analysis first draws upon past research in crisis management to define different types and stages of international crises and discuss the role that nongovernmental actors can play in the different stages of a crisis. The next section explores how consensus principles of effective crisis management apply to civil society actors. It suggests ways that nongovernmental entities can contribute to more effective crisis management and de-escalation — both through exercising restraint during crises and through facilitating crisis communication. The final section analyzes existing mechanisms for managing maritime security crises, and then provides recommendations for how civil society can help lay the foundation for future agreements that can prevent such crises from emerging in the first place.

Concepts and Principles in Foreign Policy Crisis Management

An extensive academic literature on foreign policy crises has developed useful consensus on certain definitions and principles over time. This section first reviews how crisis management experts have conceptualized the different types of international crises. It then distinguishes the different types of interventions that can help to prevent crises from triggering broader conflict at different stages of a crisis arc, ranging from crisis prevention to crisis management to crisis de-escalation. Finally, it briefly previews the role that nongovernmental actors can play in the different stages of a crisis.

Conceptualizing Foreign Policy Crises

A standard definition developed by Jonathan Wilkenfeld and Michael Brecher for the international relations field stipulates that a foreign policy crisis has three characteristics: “(1) a threat to one or more basic values, (2) an awareness of finite time for response to the value threat, and (3) a heightened probability of involvement in military hostilities.”[12] All three of these features are necessary for a “full-fledged crisis” to exist, whereas a “near crisis” may exist when decision-makers perceive a threat to their country’s basic values and a finite window of time for a response but do not perceive a risk of military hostilities emerging from the situation.

Furthermore, one side might perceive the existence of a crisis, but others involved might not. Similarly, one side may perceive a situation to be a full-fledged crisis, while the other side perceives it to be only a near crisis — in other words, the two sides may not share the same perception that a crisis might escalate to military conflict. This mismatched scenario can be particularly destabilizing, as it often results in miscalculation and miscommunication between the two sides. Such dynamics arise because one side is more inclined to take risks that might provoke military action by the other due to a lack of awareness about the other’s willingness to escalate to the use of force.

Beyond full-fledged and near crises, scholars who study international crises have also identified another category of crisis: the “gray zone crisis.”[13] Like a near crisis, a gray zone crisis occurs when decision-makers perceive a threat to their basic values or interests but do not perceive a risk of escalation to military hostilities. In fact, gray zone crises are called such precisely because they involve threats to values and interests that take place below the threshold of armed force. Consequently, these crises are difficult to respond to effectively without significant escalation, which could, in turn, endanger even more fundamental interests. Oftentimes, gray zone crises do not impose quite the same extent of time pressure as a full-fledged crisis or a near crisis. Another defining feature of gray zone crises that distinguishes them from near crises is that they often involve activities that make attribution to a state difficult and unclear. Such activities are often carried out by nonstate parties or proxy actors that are not clearly or officially affiliated with the national government.

Prevention, Management, De-Escalation: Interventions at Three Stages of the Crisis Arc

When considering how to prevent crises in the political-military domain from resulting in military conflict, there are three separate but interrelated stages for productive intervention: crisis prevention, crisis management, and crisis de-escalation. Scholars of crises typically focus on the middle of these items — crisis management. This approach involves largely setting aside concerns over the causes of the crisis and the eventual resolution of the underlying conflict that provided the backdrop for the crisis, and instead focusing on the more modest and immediate question of how to prevent a crisis that has already emerged from escalating into conflict. Crisis management focuses on how the two sides involved in the crisis can improve bilateral communication and avoid actions that will back oneself or one’s opponent into a corner with few options for backing down. However, a more holistic approach to crises considers not only how to improve management of emergent crises, but also how to prevent bilateral crises from emerging in the first place, as well as how to de-escalate and end crises after they emerge.

On a most fundamental level, efforts to prevent political-military crises could encompass efforts to resolve underlying disagreements, deconflict clashing strategies, or accommodate conflicting interests. However, prevention efforts are often conceived more modestly, referring to efforts to regularize the operations of military and paramilitary forces to reduce the likelihood that they will have a conflictual encounter with opposing forces, thereby provoking crises. These efforts can include rules of engagement and codes of conduct. Such efforts can to some extent be undertaken unilaterally, with states seeking to improve their command-and-control procedures and enhance training for their frontline forces. However, they also often require bilateral negotiation and dialogue about shared rules that are most likely to prevent crises from emerging.

Although a crisis may be effectively managed in a way that prevents escalation to conflict, it will not necessarily come to conclusion on its own without effective crisis de-escalation, which lies on the other end of the crisis arc. Ending a crisis may entail more fundamental conflict resolution efforts, with states negotiating accommodations of one another’s interests or agreeing to changes in the behavior that precipitated the crisis. However, crisis de-escalation does not require such far-reaching or transformational conflict resolution. On the contrary, it often depends upon both sides’ agreeing to postpone final resolution of underlying disagreements in the interest of defusing the crisis in the short term. Though neither side sacrifices its interests, the two sides’ interest in restoring the bilateral relationship to a more stable and secure footing leads them to find more interim approaches that can de-escalate the situation.

The Role of Civil Society in the Different Stages of a Crisis

Due in large part to the second defining feature of a foreign policy crisis — the government’s perception of an urgent need to respond to a threat to its basic values — nongovernmental entities are often constrained in their ability to play a direct role in managing or de-escalating a crisis, unless they are directly involved in the crisis itself. Time pressures often limit the willingness of a government to look to outside actors for assistance and limit the ability of such actors to exert influence on crisis outcomes. In some circumstances, government officials may deliberately limit the involvement of civil society actors in the crisis in order to prevent unpredictable escalation and preserve both flexibility and control. Thus, civil society actors are usually best positioned to help prevent crises from emerging in the first place, either by avoiding activities that might trigger a crisis or by facilitating dialogue and promoting mutual accommodation that can reduce the stressors that lead to crises. They can also explore options and provide recommendations for reforms, rules, and mechanisms that governments can use to improve their crisis management practices.

Nonetheless, nongovernmental actors can in certain circumstances also play a role in crisis management and de-escalation. Trusted individuals from outside of government can help facilitate communication during a crisis when other channels of communication are lacking — particularly between states where formal diplomatic relations are lacking or severely strained. They can also provide decision-makers with additional pathways for de-escalation by acting as channels for the exchange of compensatory benefits or concessions — such as economic deals or cooperative partnerships — that can help to mitigate embarrassment or loss of position resulting from the crisis. Civil society can also pressure government officials who are escalating or otherwise mismanaging a crisis to change course and de-escalate.

The next section will explore how civil society can assist in facilitating management and de-escalation of crises once they emerge. The final section will then analyze how civil society can help to prevent crises from emerging in the first place, with particular attention to the realm of maritime security.

Translating Crisis Management Principles for Civil Society

The academic literature on foreign policy crises has generated a number of practical principles for how states can more effectively manage crises and facilitate their de-escalation. These recommendations have traditionally focused on steps that could be taken by government actors. However, this literature also has important implications for civil society actors. This section reviews some of the key principles for effective crisis management, before then exploring how nongovernmental actors could apply those principles to support crisis management, thereby promoting their interests and those of the American and Chinese people in international peace and bilateral exchange.

Scholars who specialize in crisis management, especially as applied to U.S.-China relations, have identified eight basic principles or rules of prudence that facilitate more successful crisis management. These principles were summarized in a 2006 volume that resulted from a Track II collaboration between U.S. and Chinese think tanks and university professors that assessed case studies and principles in U.S.-China crisis management.[14] They are:

> Maintain direct channels of communication and send signals that are clear, specific, and detailed.

> Preserve limited objectives and limited means on behalf of such objectives; sacrifice unlimited goals.

> Preserve military flexibility and civilian control, escalate slowly, and respond symmetrically (in a “tit-for-tat” manner).

> Avoid ideological or principled lock-in to positions that encourage zero-sum approaches to a crisis and limit options or bargaining room; do not confuse moral or principled positions with conflicts of interest.

> Exercise self-restraint, and do not respond to all provocative moves.

> Avoid extreme pressure, ultimatums, or threats to the adversary’s core values, and preserve the adversary’s option to back down in a “face-saving” manner.

> Divide large, integrated, hard-to-resolve disputes into smaller, more manageable issues, thereby building trust and facilitating trade-offs.

> Think ahead about the unintended consequences of one’s actions.

Each of these principles can be adapted to develop recommendations for how nongovernmental actors can facilitate more effective crisis management. Many of the following suggestions focus on ways that civil society can collaborate or cooperate with government officials to help manage and resolve crises. Some instead highlight ways that civil society can pressure government actors that are escalating crises or managing them ineffectively to change course and adopt a more constructive approach. Some of these suggestions, especially in that latter category, are more feasible in democratic countries like the United States than in countries like China where civil society and the media are more tightly controlled or restricted by the government.

Facilitate communication and clarify signals. Civil society can help facilitate better communication during crises. Individual nongovernmental actors such as businesspeople, retired officials, or other society leaders that are trusted in both nations can directly fulfill this principle by serving as a channel of communication, especially when normal diplomatic channels are closed. Oftentimes, these nongovernmental channels are less ideal than direct government-to-government communication, as they have the potential to introduce confusion and might not be trusted as authoritative. However, they will generally be better than no communication, especially if there are ways that the individual’s government can signal the authoritativeness of the back channel or confirm messages sent through the back channel with other signals such as public statements or military movements. In addition, civil society actors with deep subject matter and language expertise can also help translate signals sent by an opposing state, particularly by providing more cultural and historical context to ensure the receiving government does not misinterpret those signals.

Preserve limited objectives and sacrifice unlimited goals. Civil society actors can exercise or promote caution in ways that enable the government to maintain limited goals. When crises directly relate to the missions or objectives of nongovernmental actors, those actors may be tempted to use the crises as opportunities to promote their goals by lobbying or pressuring government officials to make expansive demands or not back down. While such an approach is understandable, nongovernmental actors should be careful not to overreach in their demands. In doing so, they may cause the crisis to escalate into conflict, which could actually undermine their objectives or negatively affect their interests in other unpredictable ways. More proactively, civil society actors whose interests are directly affected by the crisis can signal to government officials that they are willing to accept compromise outcomes and sacrifice unlimited goals. Civil society can also pressure intransigent government officials to seek compromise and sacrifice unlimited goals in the interest of preventing conflict. They can exert this pressure through comments in public media or through direct private communication if such channels are available to them.

Maintain civilian control and respond symmetrically. Civil society actors should encourage government actors to pursue diplomatic resolution to crises and avoid pressuring the government to resort to military force. Such measures will help create space for government officials to retain civilian control of crises, which is important as military personnel are often trained to employ more offensive tactics and strategies. In addition, tit-for-tat responses — as opposed to disproportionate responses — are key to prevent rapid escalation of a crisis. Civil society actors should avoid demanding disproportionate responses and, instead, should help the government to identify symmetric responses to actions taken by the other side, advocating such approaches through the media or in direct communications with their governments. If their government is responding disproportionately in ways that are escalating the crisis, civil society actors can also speak out against such approaches.

Avoid ideological lock-in to zero-sum positions. Extreme pressure from domestic audiences often makes it much harder for policymakers to find a path toward the de-escalation of a crisis. Civil society actors, including media and public thought leaders, often play an important role in shaping public opinion before and during crises. They should thus be careful not to promote ideologically rigid framings of a crisis or an opponent that portray the opponent as a fundamental, existential threat to one’s values, rights, or principles. Such portrayals can make government officials feel pressured to take zero-sum positions that prevent mutually acceptable crisis resolution, instead prolonging or escalating the crisis. More proactively, nongovernmental actors can work to counter uncompromising ideological narratives that are presented by government actors or by other civil society actors by identifying the nuances of a particular situation, explaining the perspective of the other country in the crisis, and highlighting potential negative consequences of a zero-sum stance. They can communicate these arguments in the public media or through direct channels if possible.

Exercise self-restraint and do not always respond in kind. Although symmetric responses to actions of the other side in a crisis are preferable to disproportionate reactions, and sometimes are necessary to communicate resolve in protecting one’s bottom line and vital interests, it is also important that crisis actors exercise self-restraint, resisting the temptation to always engage in tit-for-tat responses. As with the third principle, then, civil society actors can help the government to identify opportunities for de-escalation and restraint, advocating such approaches through the media or in direct communications with their governments. They can also use those same channels to express opposition when their government escalates a crisis, in an effort to pressure government officials to adopt a more restrained approach. Likewise, if nongovernmental actors ever find themselves involved as a party to a crisis — such as a gray-zone crisis — they should abide by this principle themselves, exercising restraint and avoiding the temptation to always retaliate in kind when not absolutely essential.

Avoid extreme pressure and preserve face-saving ways for the opponent to back down. It is important that nongovernmental actors avoid pressuring the government to demand that the other side fully accept blame for a crisis as a condition of de-escalation. Such demands can prevent successful management of a crisis and are better postponed for diplomatic negotiation after the immediate crisis has passed — or dropped entirely. Beyond avoiding making such demands, civil society actors can also proactively help government officials find creative ways to save face upon resolving a crisis. They can provide outside options for the government to use in offering compensatory concessions to the other side in exchange for reducing their demands, whether those are privately exchanged or publicly communicated. Public thought leaders in civil society can also help frame potential crisis outcomes in ways that highlight the benefits of de-escalation and the costs of escalation. Such framing can help to counter escalatory narratives promoted either by nationalist voices outside of government or by government actors that oppose compromise.

Divide disputes into smaller issues to facilitate trade-offs. One way to facilitate de-escalation of a crisis and provide opportunities for mutually agreeable resolution is to be creative in considering how one’s interests can be served by partial or compromise solutions. Civil society actors can help brainstorm such pragmatic solutions and recommend them to government actors directly or advocate them in the media. Public thought leaders can speak of discrete aspects of the crisis as distinct issues, rather than framing all of them as inextricably interrelated. If a crisis directly involves nongovernmental actors, they can even separately work to resolve the aspects of the crisis that involve them in order to reduce the magnitude of the two sides’ crisis management task.

Think ahead about unintended consequences. When government actors are in the midst of a crisis, they will often be preoccupied with short-term considerations directly related to their portfolios. They may be less inclined to consider long-term or unintended consequences of the crisis and possible crisis outcomes. Many of those unintended consequences will often directly affect civil society actors, such as businesses, researchers, universities, NGOs, and religious institutions. It is essential that civil society actors communicate their concerns about the potential adverse or unintended consequences of different crisis outcomes to government officials, whether through private channels or public media. Likewise, when nongovernmental actors are themselves actors in the crisis, they should be deliberate in thinking about the unintended consequences of actions they might take to escalate a situation, including exposure to legal liability, as well as broader harms their actions could inflict on society by triggering military conflict.

From Crisis Management to Crisis Prevention: Applications in Maritime Security

The preceding section provided creative recommendations for how civil society actors can apply well-established principles of effective crisis management to help manage and resolve crises that have already emerged. As noted above, however, the period when civil society has the greatest potential to make transformative contributions is before a crisis starts, by generating ideas and creating incentives that prevent crises from emerging in the first place.

This section begins by reviewing existing U.S.-China mechanisms for prevention, management, and de-escalation of maritime security crises. It then provides recommendations for next steps that the U.S. and Chinese governments can take to promote better maritime crisis management. Finally, it identifies gaps in existing official mechanisms and areas where more groundwork needs to be laid before negotiations can take place at a Track I level. It will provide recommendations for how nongovernmental actors can work to lay a foundation for future U.S.-China or broader regional agreements on maritime cooperation and military activities at sea. Such agreements will provide for more fundamental progress that can go beyond existing confidence-building measures to help prevent the emergence of maritime security crises between the United States and China.

Existing U.S.-China Mechanisms for Maritime Crisis Management

Since the late 1990s, the United States and China have established some crisis management mechanisms that aim to reduce the likelihood of direct U.S.-China military conflict at sea and to facilitate urgent communication should a serious maritime crisis erupt. The U.S.-China Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) reached in 1998 established a means for coordinating annual dialogues on maritime issues between the two countries’ militaries. The MMCA was specifically established as a mechanism for discussing safety in operational matters rather than for addressing or resolving underlying political disputes. In addition, the Defense Consultative Talks and Defense Policy Coordination Talks mentioned above have also served as venues for Washington and Beijing to discuss issues related to maritime security, including the two sides’ disagreements about international law and domestic regulations governing foreign military activities in exclusive economic zones (EEZ), which extend up to 200 nautical miles from a nation’s coast.[15]

In their first decade and a half, these dialogues facilitated communication but produced little in the way of concrete confidence-building measures. However, in 2014, Washington and Beijing finally reached two important bilateral agreements.[16] One of these agreements was the above-mentioned agreement on Notification of Major Military Activities. In this agreement, the two sides pledged to notify each other when conducting major military exercises in the Asia-Pacific region, when issuing major military reports, and when enacting major shifts in defense policies. The other agreement focused on safety in maritime encounters and was accompanied the following year by a more detailed supplemental set of rules on air-to-air encounters.[17]

This latter bilateral agreement on safety in aerial and maritime encounters built on the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea (COLREGS) and the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). The COLREGS were codified in an international convention adopted by the International Maritime Organization in 1972, which both the United States and China have accepted,[18] while CUES is a more recent agreement signed in 2014 by 21 Pacific nations, including the United States and China, at the 14th Western Pacific Naval Symposium.[19] The COLREGS establish rules for how ships must operate under various circumstances to prevent collisions at sea, with provisions concerning safe speeds, head-on approaches, overtaking other vessels, crossing paths, traveling in narrow channels and in traffic lanes, low-visibility situations, towing, pushing, pilotage, anchoring, sound and light signals, and more. Both CUES and the U.S.-China agreement on safety in aerial and maritime encounters explicitly built upon the COLREGS, reiterating its principles and supplementing them with additional guidelines in certain areas, especially with regard to facilitating clear on-site communication among ships and aircraft.

Next Steps for Governmental Negotiations on Maritime Crisis Management

These various agreements have been important steps toward preventing crises and improving each side’s ability to communicate effectively during a crisis. Moving forward, it is important that American and Chinese officials practice using the various existing crisis communication channels on a regular basis so that officials on both sides become accustomed to using them. This will help to ensure that communication via those channels during a crisis is smooth and effective. Via the MMCA and DPCT, the U.S. and Chinese governments should also continue to clarify and resolve remaining differences of interpretation regarding certain aspects of the CUES and the bilateral agreement on safety in air and maritime encounters. In addition, the MMCA should be revitalized to facilitate more delegated and intensive engagements between American and Chinese military professionals throughout the chain of command, not only at the most senior levels.[20]

Beyond these existing agreements, the United States and China should also negotiate new agreements to facilitate improved maritime crisis management. For example, the U.S.-China agreement on safety in aerial and maritime encounters negotiated in 2014-15 only applies to the navies and air forces of the United States and China. However, vessels from the U.S. and Chinese coast guards also frequently interact in the waters of the Western Pacific. China relies on such vessels as its primary means to enforce its legal claims and conduct its fisheries enforcement patrols.[21] Thus, the bilateral agreement on safety in aerial and maritime encounters should be supplemented with an agreement on safety in encounters between coast guard vessels. The two nations’ coast guards committed to pursuing such an agreement in September 2015, but such an agreement has not yet materialized.[22] The Biden administration should return to these negotiations and seek a path forward to an agreement as soon as possible.[23]

Finally, the U.S. and Chinese governments should expand upon their traditional focus on crisis communication mechanisms and operational rules to discuss more substantive principles that could help to prevent crises that emerge at sea (or in any other context) from emerging or escalating. This could build on the eight principles of crisis management synthesized from the U.S. crisis management literature enumerated above. These principles have already achieved a high degree of acceptance among both American and Chinese crisis management experts, including those associated with the People’s Liberation Army. The dialogue on crisis communication between the U.S. Department of Defense and the Chinese Ministry of Defense initiated in October 2020 will provide an important venue for such ongoing discussions. However, it is important that such discussions also occur between the U.S. Department of State and Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, since these agencies are often at least partly, if not primarily, responsible for managing political-security crises that emerge at sea. This may also require the United States and/or China to improve or clarify their own internal military-civilian coordination processes for managing maritime military crises.[24]

How Civil Society Can Lay a Foundation for More Significant Progress

Civil society actors, especially scholar-practitioners at think tanks and universities, can help to facilitate some of these recommended next steps for government. For example, experts in Chinese foreign policy decision-making in both the United States and China could publish research on how Chinese military and civilian agencies coordinate management of maritime security crises. U.S. scholar-practitioners could engage in Track II dialogues with Chinese counterparts to gain insight into this question and then brief U.S. policymakers on their findings.

In addition, there are several other areas relating to maritime security where the U.S. and Chinese governments are not currently well-positioned to pursue agreements, but they could find common ground in the future. In these areas, civil society can play an important role in exploring the potential and laying the foundation for future agreements that could help prevent maritime security crises from emerging in the first place. Two examples will be highlighted here: first, arrangements for joint development of resources and joint marine conservation; and second, shared guidelines for foreign military activities in the exclusive economic zone.

Joint Development of Resources and Marine Conservation. One of the best ways to prevent crises in the South China Sea and other disputed maritime spaces is for claimants in the disputes to develop what the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea calls “provisional arrangements of a practical nature” that allow them to share marine resources and administrative authority. Such arrangements most commonly consist of agreements between states to engage in shared management of provisional fishery zones or joint development of oil and gas resources. These arrangements, explicitly designed without prejudice to underlying sovereignty claims or eventual maritime boundary delimitation, can help countries find a way to lower tensions and promote mutual interests in resource extraction from the disputed waters that would otherwise remain out of reach due to the sensitivities of each side.

In a similar vein, claimant states, along with other user states that operate frequently in the region, can work together to develop shared mechanisms for regional marine conservation and marine peace parks. For example, Susan Thornton recommends that the United States, China, and ASEAN conduct a joint survey of the environmental health of the South China Sea and sponsor a joint project for plastic removal, followed by the establishment of a South China Sea environmental resource commission to facilitate joint marine conservation efforts by claimant states and user states alike.[25] Another recommendation that has been developed and advocated by civil society actors and was, at one point, endorsed by the Taiwan government — which controls the largest island in the Spratly group in the South China Sea — is the establishment of a Spratly Islands Marine Peace Park. This park would facilitate sustainable management of the area’s natural resources and “alleviate regional tensions via a freeze on claims.”[26]

While such arrangements would be strongly conducive to preventing maritime security crises and promoting mutually beneficial cooperation, they are also highly complex from technical, legal, and political perspectives. As a result, they present numerous challenges even to those government officials who might be interested in negotiating them. Nongovernmental actors can play indispensable roles in laying the foundations for subsequent government-to-government discussions on these arrangements. Scholar-practitioners at think tanks, universities, and private law firms and consultancies can develop technical proposals, craft legal instruments, and brainstorm political strategies that can be used as the basis for negotiations by governments. Likewise, companies with expertise and interest in resource extraction, and advocacy organizations with commitment to environmental conservation, can work separately — or ideally together — to develop proposals for such mechanisms and advocate them to all relevant governments. In addition to helping governments navigate the complexity of such arrangements, such civil society engagement would also help to build support for governments to pursue mutually acceptable compromise in disputes, acting as a countervailing force against rigid, maximal, nationalist resistance.

Foreign Military Activities in the EEZ. One of the principal underlying sources of tension and primary drivers of crisis instability in the U.S.-China relationship is the lack of agreement and clarity on the rules that apply to foreign military activities in coastal states’ exclusive economic zones. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is notably ambiguous on this subject, which creates considerable space for countries to assert their own widely diverging rules for foreign military vessels’ operations in their EEZs. Reaching agreement on a set of rules for foreign military activities in the EEZ would help to prevent misunderstanding and miscalculation, enhance transparency and predictability, and reduce the likelihood of operational clashes stemming from different applications of the relevant international law.[27]

Given the long-standing sensitivities on this subject, especially between the United States and China, but also on the part of other nations, this is an area where Track II engagement by nongovernmental experts from a range of nations can play a particularly valuable role in sorting out thorny issues and providing constructive compromise proposals. In fact, such Track II work has already been conducted in the past by the EEZ Group 21, a collection of experts from several countries in the region — including Japan, the United States, China, South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, India, and Russia — convened by the Ocean Policy Research Foundation, a Japanese think tank. The EEZ Group 21 issued a set of recommended guidelines for navigation and overflight in the EEZ in 2005, with hopes that they would be adopted as the basis for negotiation by governments in the Asia-Pacific region.[28] Despite involvement by leading U.S. legal experts, these guidelines were dismissed by U.S. policymakers “due to concerns that they restricted unduly the freedoms of navigation and overflight available in an EEZ.” In response, the Ocean Policy Research Foundation, in consultation with several members of the original group, led an effort to develop a new set of revised principles. These revised principles, issued in 2013, were aimed to address those outstanding concerns in order to gain more support for the principles among states and in regional intergovernmental forums.[29]

These principles represent a promising basis for progress on clarifying key contentious issues related to foreign military activities in the EEZ. However, amid increasing tensions in the South China Sea since 2013, these rules have not yet been adopted as the basis for official dialogue. In their official bilateral dialogues in the years after 2013, Washington and Beijing instead focused on more tactical low-hanging fruit, such as the negotiation of bilateral agreements on mutual notification of major military activities, safety in aerial and maritime encounters, and crisis communication via the Defense Telephone Link and joint staff dialogue mechanism. While these agreements were important, they did not clarify underlying differences of interpretation regarding the range of permissible behaviors of foreign military vessels and aircraft in the EEZ.

In order to resurface these recommendations and place them on the agenda of policymakers, nongovernmental scholar-practitioners could once again revisit the recommendations to evaluate whether they require further revision in light of existing circumstances. They should then organize a more sustained effort to promote the adoption or official negotiation of these guidelines — first, on a bilateral basis between the United States and China, given the central importance of those two states’ agreeing on the appropriate interpretations, and then on a broader regional basis, perhaps through negotiations hosted by an ASEAN-centered institution such as the ASEAN Regional Forum.


As nuclear superpowers with divergent political systems and increasingly frequent military interactions, the United States and China have many fundamental disagreements on issues that do not permit much room for cooperation or even dialogue. At the same time, Washington and Beijing share an existential interest in managing these disagreements and preventing them from developing into political-military crises that could escalate into conflict and war. Nongovernmental actors can play an important role in facilitating better crisis management and de-escalation. They can do so by avoiding actions and demands that could constrain the U.S. and Chinese governments’ bargaining space; by providing communication channels, outside options, and creative proposals to each government; and by encouraging officials to avoid escalation and accept compromise during crises. In addition, civil society can help lay the groundwork for significantly more robust crisis prevention mechanisms by developing detailed proposals that can serve as the basis for negotiations among the United States, China, and other relevant actors, and then by organizing to create sustained support for such proposals.

[1] See previous section for a discussion of how the United States and China can improve prospects for such dialogue.

[2] In ensuing years, the DCT have been conducted at a senior level, either between the U.S. secretary of defense and Chinese minister of defense (who, under the Chinese system, is also a vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and an active-duty flag officer) or between the U.S. undersecretary of defense and a Chinese deputy chief of general staff. The MMCA has been more centered on links between operational officers, including high-level meetings between leaders of the (Indo-)Pacific Command on the U.S. side and leaders of the PLA General Staff on the Chinese side, as well as more working-level meetings between officers on both sides. Shirley A. Kan, “U.S.-China Military Contacts: Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, RL32496, Oct. 27, 2014,

[3] Agreement on the Establishment of a Secure Defense Telephone Link between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, signed at Shanghai Feb. 29, 2008, Entered into force Feb. 29, 2008,

[4] The DPCT have been led by the deputy assistant secretary of defense on the U.S. side and the director of the PLA’s Foreign Affairs Office on the Chinese side. Kan, Ibid.

[5] Memorandum of Understanding between the United States of America Department of Defense and the People’s Republic of China Ministry of National Defense on Notification of Major Military Activities Confidence-Building Measures Mechanism, signed at Beijing Oct. 31, 2014 and at Washington Nov. 4, 2014,

[6] “Annex III: Military Crisis Notification Mechanism for Use of the Defense Telephone Link,” the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, September 2015,

[7] Also in 2014, the two sides reached an agreement on safety in maritime and air operations, which will be discussed in greater detail below in the section on maritime crisis management.

[8] Jim Garamone, “U.S., Chinese Military Leaders Sign Agreement to Increase Communication,” DoD News, Defense Media Activity, Joint Chiefs of Staff, Aug. 15, 2017,

[9] Steven Stashwick, “New U.S.-China Military Agreement Won’t Be Defusing Any Crises,” China-U.S. Focus, Sept. 11, 2017,

[10] Laura Zhou, “Chinese, US militaries blame each other for PLA ‘no-show’ at virtual meeting,” South China Morning Post, Dec. 17, 2020,

[11] Rush Doshi, “Improving Risk Reduction and Crisis Management in US-China Relations,” in Ryan Hass, Ryan McElveen, and Robert D. Williams, eds., The Future of US Policy toward China: Recommendations for the Biden Administration (John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings and Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, November 2020),, pp. 69-71.

[12] Jonathan Wilkenfeld, “Chapter 2: Concepts and Methods in the Study of International Crisis Management,” in Michael D. Swaine and Zhang Tuosheng, with Danielle F.S. Cohen, eds., Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis (Washington, D.C.: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006). See also Michael Brecher and Jonathan Wilkenfeld, A Study of Crisis (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).

[13] Devin Ellis, Egle Murauskaite, Ron Capps, Jonathan Wilkenfeld, and Rachel Gabriel, “Gray Zone Crises in MENA and Eastern Europe,” (College Park, Md.: START, March 2017),

[14] Michael D. Swaine and Zhang Tuosheng, with Danielle F. S. Cohen, eds., Managing Sino-American Crises: Case Studies and Analysis (Washington, DC: Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2006).

[15] Kan, Ibid.

[16] Bonnie Glaser, “A Step Forward in US-China Military Ties: Two CBM Agreements,” CSIS Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative, Nov. 11, 2014,

[17] Memorandum of Understanding between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China Regarding the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters, Washington, Nov. 9, 2014, Beijing, Nov. 10, 2014,; Supplement to the Memorandum of Understanding on the Rules of Behavior for Safety of Air and Maritime Encounters between the Department of Defense of the United States of America and the Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, Beijing, Sept. 15, 2015, Washington, Sept. 18, 2015,

[18] Convention on the international regulations for preventing collisions at sea, Oct. 20, 1972, London, Registration Number 15824,

[19] Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea, April 22, 2014, Qingdao, China,

[20] David Griffiths, U.S.-China Maritime Confidence Building: Paradigms, Precedents, and Prospects, China Maritime Study No. 6 (China Maritime Studies Institute, U.S. Naval War College, Newport, Rhode Island, July 2010),

[21] China uses Coast Guard vessels rather than PLA navy ships to conduct maritime law enforcement missions in large part precisely as a means of limiting the risk of escalation to military conflict. From a more skeptical perspective, this strategy also enables China to engage in a form of “gray-zone” coercion, bolstering its disputed claims through efforts that remain below the level of kinetic conflict. See Andrew S. Erickson and Ryan D. Martinson, eds., China’s Maritime Gray Zone Operations (Annapolis, MD: China Maritime Studies Institute and Naval Institute Press, 2019); Jeremy A. Oliver, China’s Maritime Militias: A Gray Zone Force, master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, March 2019,

[22] “Fact Sheet: President Xi Jinping’s State Visit to the United States,” The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, September 25, 2015,

[23] Doshi, Ibid.; Michael D. Swaine, Jessica J. Lee, and Rachel Esplin Odell, Toward an Inclusive & Balanced Regional Order: A New U.S. Strategy in East Asia (Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, January 2021), p. 50,

[24] There is likely a degree of asymmetry between the way the United States and China manage maritime crises stemming from their different internal crisis management processes. In the United States, the U.S. State Department will play an important role in managing such crises, working in tandem with the Department of Defense and Indo-Pacific Command, subject to the coordination of the National Security Council. In China, the Central Military Commission (CMC) retains primary responsibility for managing maritime crises. Both military vessels and aircraft operated by the People’s Liberation Army and coast guard vessels subject to the jurisdiction of the People’s Armed Police fall under the command of the CMC. Although the CMC’s crisis management is subject to the oversight of the top civilian leadership (especially Xi Jinping as the chairman of the CMC), the extent to which the CMC coordinates or partners with the Foreign Ministry in managing and responding to such crises is unclear. Moving forward, the U.S. and Chinese governments should clarify the best channels for civilian foreign affairs communication during crises and develop clear understandings about how those channels will relate to military communication channels.

[25] Susan Thornton, “Averting Conflict in the South China Sea: Steps To Restore Rules And Restraint,” in Ryan Hass, Ryan McElveen, and Robert D. Williams, eds., The Future of US Policy toward China: Recommendations for the Biden Administration (John L. Thornton China Center at Brookings and Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center, November 2020),, pp. 46-51.

[26] John McManus, Kwang-Tsao Shao, and Szu-Yin Lin, “Toward Establishing a Spratly Islands International Marine Peace Park: Ecological Importance and Supportive Collaborative Activities with an Emphasis on the Role of Taiwan,” Ocean Development & International Law, Vol. 41, No. 3 (July 2010), pp. 270-280,; Oliver Ward, “The overlooked casualty in the South China Sea dispute,” ASEAN Today, Jan. 31, 2019,

[27] Swaine, Lee, and Odell, Ibid., p. 51.

[28] EEZ Group 21, “Guidelines for Navigation and Overflight in the Exclusive Economic Zone,” Ocean Policy Research Foundation, September 26, 2005, Tokyo, Japan,

[29]“Principles for Building Confidence and Security in the Exclusive Economic Zones of the Asia–Pacific. Tokyo,” Ocean Policy Research Foundation, October 30, 2013,

Two Cases for Risk Management: Restoring Restraint and Trust over the Taiwan and South China Sea Issues

By Jin Kai


Part I: The Taiwan Issue

Under President Donald Trump’s administration, U.S. policy toward Taiwan became increasingly radical and has resulted in a more belligerent standoff between Beijing and Washington over the island. By holding Taiwan as an increasingly important partner in its global and regional strategies,[1] Washington has undertaken a more hawkish approach to demonstrate its political resolve in viewing China as a strategic competitor over a wide range of political, economic, and ideological issues across the Asia-Pacific region and beyond.

Jin Kai is a visiting fellow at the Grandview Institution and a non-resident scholar at the Sigur Center for Asian Studies, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University. He received his Ph.D. in International Relations from the Graduate School of International Studies (GSIS), Yonsei University, South Korea.

The Democratic Progressive Party administration in Taiwan led by Tsai Ing-wen, who came to power in the election of 2016, has followed Washington’s lead by taking a more antagonistic approach with Beijing, dragging cross-strait relations into a more confrontational and precarious situation.

Considering that the fundamental principles of China’s Taiwan policy, which ultimately seek Taiwanese unification with the mainland, have remained largely unchanged, it is important for Beijing and Washington to jointly identify the changes in policies of the Trump administration and their subsequent impacts. A high-level dialogue mechanism should be established based on the original bilateral consensus reached in the three China-U.S. Joint Communiqués (1972, 1978, and 1982) to prevent the Taiwan issue from becoming a flashpoint or catalyst for any further deterioration of China-U.S. relations in the years to come.

Restoring Restraint and Trust: A Common Objective for Risk Management

Why does the Taiwan issue matter? For China, it is about the ultimate unification of the Chinese nation. Beijing has always claimed the Taiwan issue is a matter of national sovereignty and a domestic issue that can only be resolved among the peoples on either side of the Taiwan Strait. For the United States, the logic of why Taiwan matters is very different. A policy recommendation report on the U.S.-Taiwan relationship conducted by the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in October 2020 explains that Taiwan matters to the United States in three aspects:

> The future of Taiwan is important to American values;

> The future of Taiwan is pivotal to peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific;

> The future of Taiwan is important to S. economic competitiveness and prosperity.[2]

The question then becomes: Is the ultimate unification of Taiwan that Beijing has long sought destined to clash with the American values of peace and stability in the Indo-Pacific accompanied by U.S. economic competitiveness and prosperity?

The diplomatic consensus and principles about Taiwan’s status articulated in the three Joint Communiqués have made it clear that peaceful resolution and unification serve the best interests of all parties. It is the “variations” in the U.S. position on Taiwan, articulated in several congressional and executive policies, that are offering different voices and sending mixed and confusing messages, which is unusual. Richard Bush, nonresident senior fellow in the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, believes the U.S.-Taiwan tie is “a unique relationship” that seems “perfectly normal” in “economic, functional and people-to-people areas” but “not so normal” in “diplomatic and security arenas.”[3]

By contrast, Beijing’s policies toward Taiwan have remained holistic and consistent. Beijing’s relatively more hardline approach toward Taiwan in recent years has been a reaction to the more visible pro-independence movement on the island.

Therefore, Beijing and Washington must restore comprehensive restraint and, at a minimum, establish mutual trust on the Taiwan issue. Peaceful unification with Taiwan is still the best option for Beijing. Given tensions at this current moment, Washington particularly needs to reassess its previous policy of arms sales and diplomatic approaches to Taiwan. Restoring restraint based on the spirits and principles of the three Joint Communiqués is a timely mandate for both Beijing and Washington.

Recent Updates and the Consequent Impacts

The status of Taiwan has remained a crucial issue in China-U.S. relations for the past four decades. A series of official documents, including the three China-U.S. Joint Communiqués[4] have all specified that “Taiwan is part of China” and the government of the United States “acknowledges the Chinese position” of “One China.” However, dark clouds are gathering across the Taiwan Strait and between China and the United States, particularly as U.S. policy toward Taiwan has undergone significant changes in the past few years, undoubtedly due in part to the island’s internal political shift.

Key Updates

One of Washington’s significant actions was the passage of the Taiwan Travel Act in late February 2018 after the Trump administration had already signaled a “whole-of-government” pushback on China with an unprecedented trade war. The act, which was signed into law by Trump in March 2018, has made it more open and convenient for high-ranking officials from Taiwan and the U.S. to make official visits to either side. After the act became a U.S. domestic law, Tsai Ing-wen made a “transit visit” to the U.S. in July 2019, and two high-ranking U.S. officials, the U.S. Health Secretary Alex Azar and the U.S. Under Secretary of State Keith Krach, paid high-profile visits to Taiwan in August and September 2020. In return for such “goodwill,”, the Tsai Ing-wen administration decided to lift U.S. beef and pork import restrictions as an “important start for economic cooperation” between Taiwan and the United States.[5]

Other recent legislative efforts in the U.S. Congress (either signed into law or pending passage) to support Taiwan include the Taiwan Allies International Protection and Enhancement Initiative (TAIPEI) Act of 2019, Taiwan Invasion Prevention Act, Taiwan Fellowship Act, Taiwan Assurance Act of 2019, Taiwan Envoy Act, and Taiwan Relations Reinforcement Act of 2020. In addition, the White House recently made public the details of the “Six Assurances” confidentially made to Taiwan by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.[6] U.S. legislators have referred to these released cables in their recent efforts to introduce a number of Taiwan-related laws and resolutions, including those mentioned above.

Perhaps one of the most truculent moves made by the Trump administration on the Taiwan issue is the significant increase in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan. By late October 2020, the Trump administration approved nine packages of arms sales to Taiwan in less than four years, with total sales exceeding $17.4 billion. By contrast, President Barack Obama approved three arms sales packages to Taiwan in his two terms (eight years), with a total sum of about U.S.$14 billion.[7]

Another potentially “uneasy” change stems up from the “revised” attitude and approaches toward Taiwan by the Democratic Party, which was revealed in its party platformduring 2020.[8] This strategic guidance dropped “One China” in its language on the Taiwan issue, making the Democrats’ position on Taiwan more like that of the Republicans, and certainly leaving enough room for everyone to imagine in the years to come.

Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that there was no direct contact between President-elect Joe Biden and Tsai Ing-wen after the Biden team claimed victory in the 2020 presidential election. Trump, however, received a direct call from Tsai Ing-wen in 2016, making him the first U.S. president-elect to speak directly to the leader of Taiwan since 1979. A possible unspoken message by the Biden team is that “Biden’s goal will not be to threaten Chinese interests for its own sake but to maintain the status quo across the Strait.”[9]

Major Impacts

Unfortunately, substantive changes in the U.S.-Taiwan relationship undertaken by Washington during the Trump presidency have significantly complicated the Taiwan issue. The possible impacts of these changes could devastate the “delicate balance” across the Taiwan Strait that Beijing and Washington have subtly acquiesced to over the past four decades. In a number of aspects, the ultimate consequences could be destructive to any efforts to “reaffirm” or “re-establish” even a minimum level of mutual trust and understanding. Should restraint on the Taiwan issue not be restored, these lasting impacts might not go away at both the strategic and policy levels.

First, there will be an impact on the consensus and mutual understanding between China and the United States over the Taiwan issue. In both qualitative and quantitative terms, the increased arms sales approved by the Trump administration have far exceeded the levels of the previous administration, and represent the de facto abandonment of the road map of reduction in arms sales to Taiwan mutually agreed to in the Joint Communiqué of 1982. It certainly raises deep concerns when Beijing assesses Washington’s genuine willingness to uphold the cornerstone principles settled in the three Joint Communiqués. Nobody expects political acquiescence and diplomatic appeasement on the Taiwan issue from Beijing, no matter how the bilateral, regional, and global winds are changing.

Second, should Washington continue to directly or indirectly encourage Taiwanese independence, Tsai Ing-wen’s administration may undertake more hazardous moves to advance its incremental and substantial pursuit of Taiwan’s ultimate independence. Does this genuinely serve the best interests of the United States?[10] Should Washington return to the original consensus between China and the United States that seeks to preserve peace across the Taiwan Strait? Or, should it continue to take more aggressive moves to make Taiwan a “weapon” in its overall pushback on China and even abet the growth of pro-independence movements in Taiwan in the name of the so-called “moral responsibility,” and possibly put itself in a total conflict with China? It certainly raises many questions for Washington when it seems to be re-defining its ultimate interests in Taiwan against the overall U.S.-China relationship. Simply put, Washington’s messaging toward Taiwan, no matter how it is articulated, might be significantly reinterpreted by Taiwan leaders for various political ends.

Third, the de facto “strategic ambiguity” of U.S. policy on Taiwan’s status has been eroded by recent policy changes made by the Trump administration. The policy of “ambiguity” is derived primarily from original policy designs by the United States which not only acknowledge the three China-U.S. Joint Communiqués, but also The Taiwan Relations Act, the “Six Assurances,” and a number of related acts, resolutions, and U.S. domestic laws. However, the plethora of policy choices taken by Washington that often contradict the three Joint Communiqués do not necessarily provide Washington the best policy choices, especially when the DPP administration in Taiwan has been increasingly pro-independence.


Although Beijing remains resolved to seek ultimate unification with Taiwan, there have been significant “improvements” in U.S.-Taiwan relations since the Obama administration, and particularly in the last two years of the Trump administration. The worst scenario would arise from an uncontrolled, escalatory spiral of power interactions when miscalculation continues to overtake even the minimum-level mutual trust.

Ideally, both sides should join hands to maintain a workable communication mechanism to talk through a wide range of critical issues concerning Taiwan — for example, through existing bilateral dialogue channels. There are many issues, disputes, and obstacles between China and the United States over the Taiwan issue, but restoring restraint should be the first and foremost step.

1. Send and mutually confirm clear messages.

To maintain the stability of the situation across the Taiwan Strait, both sides urgently need to send and mutually confirm clear messages to each other. Both sides also need to stop introducing new policies and measures that may further complicate the already tense situation and cause instability across the Taiwan Strait. President Biden, and especially his diplomatic team, may find Beijing more willing to talk over a wide range of issues should the right message be clearly conveyed.

2. Reassess and eventually cease U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Washington should reassess its arms sales policy toward Taiwan, particularly the sales approved in the last four years. The significant increase in U.S. arms sales to Taiwan yields little to Taiwan’s “self-defense” capability, yet it facilitates unrealistic and unnecessary political adventurism on the island.

3. Be wary of any intention or move to substantively change U.S.-Taiwan relationship.

Both sides cautiously deal with the desire of Taiwanese authorities (and some Americans) to substantively enhance the U.S.-Taiwan relationship. To make a strong case that Taiwan’s status is undetermined and make substantial changes to U.S.-Taiwan relations would only further undermine the already not very solid foundation of the U.S.-China consensus on the Taiwan issue.

4. Restructure U.S.-Taiwan security cooperation under a U.S.-China security consensus.

Beijing understands Washington’s security concerns in the region. However, Washington must carefully reassess Taiwan’s role in the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy while Beijing should provide more options for China-U.S. security cooperation in the Asia-Pacific region. In fact, Beijing and Washington are fully capable of conducting practical cooperation in regional security issues, such as anti-piracy, maritime law enforcement and rescue, and resource protection.

5. Examine Taiwan’s claims for participation in the international community within the framework of the “One-China Principle”.

Both parties may conduct candid discussions on Taiwan’s involvement in the international community, such as Taiwan’s participation in international cooperative efforts to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, under the condition of abiding by the fundamental spirit of “One-China Principle” and the three China-U.S. Joint Communiqués.

6. Create a good atmosphere for the promotion of cross-strait economic, trade, and people-to-people exchanges.

In the area of technology development and economic cooperation between mainland China and Taiwan, Washington should not impose any (or further) restrictions on companies or individuals involved in such businesses. Normal economic and trade exchanges across the strait should not be affected by recent changes in China-U.S. economic and trade relations.


The Taiwan issue should not be such a liability (if not an obstacle) to China-U.S. relations as it is at the moment. “Strategic ambiguity” by Washington in the past years may have played a certain role of “inhibitor,” for example, in time of crises. However, such “ambiguity” was also constantly re-elaborated and magnified by Taipei in its quest for more international autonomy, substantial upgrades to Taipei-Washington political and diplomatic ties, and incremental independence.

Moreover, recent policy changes and moves by the Trump administration have exacerbated tensions between the U.S. and China. Although enduring obstacles over the Taiwan issue between China and the United States may not be easily overcome in the foreseeable future, restoring restraint is nevertheless a critical starting point. It requires not only political and practical wisdom, but also dedicated and skillful diplomacy from both sides.


Part II: The South China Sea Issue

Amid intensifying political, economic, and ideological competition between China and the United States, continued enforcement of respective claims concerning overlapping or disputed territories in the South China Sea by multiple parties has significantly complicated U.S.-China bilateral relations. In the past few years, the United States has kept an increasingly high-profile presence in the South China Sea by sending a large number of planes and vessels, which have, contrary to what Washington may have expected, generated limited outcomes.

China has adopted a more restrained but comprehensive approach to solidify its sovereign position by applying military, civilian, and law-enforcement countermeasures targeted at different parties in the South China Sea, giving Beijing more maneuverability in its disagreements, for example, with Washington. It is interesting to note that under such circumstances, the Trump administration decided to deploy U.S. Coast Guard cutters in the West Pacific as new leverage to both signal U.S. presence and to diversify its policy measures in the disputed waters. Washington is also seeking more attention and substantive involvement from its traditional allies to encourage solid, multilateral, political, and diplomatic pressure on China.

Claimants among Southeast Asian countries, in addition to hardening their respective positions on South China Sea disputes, are closely watching the rising tension between Beijing and Washington. The two giants are caught in a strategic duel in which neither will easily give in, particularly in the current atmosphere.

Hence, the South China Sea issue, at the strategic level, crystallizes the conflicts between China and the United States, especially when Washington has viewed island construction and the expanded military presence of the Chinese in the South China Sea as an unbearable wedge to its absolute predominance in the West Pacific region. Consequently, disputes between China and other claimants are relatively resolvable, and at a certain level, the key to calming the South China Sea conundrum is still in the hands of Beijing and Washington.

Restoring Restraint and Trust: A Common Objective for Management

Although the United States is not a direct claimant in the South China Sea disputes, it has various strategic and policy resources and capabilities to impose substantial influence in the region. At the strategic and geopolitical level, the South China Sea issue is a matter between China and the United States. At the practical level, it is an issue between China and the other direct claimants in Southeast Asia. Hence, the South China Sea resembles a “two-tier structure.”

However, as Susan Thornton, senior fellow at Yale Law School and nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, put it, the current U.S. approach in the South China Sea is “provocative, escalatory, and unlikely to be effective, given the changing military balance in the region.”[11] Also, the absence of a clear and solid common objective between China and the United States could make it possible for spiraling escalation to draw both parties into an unfortunate conflict.

As a result, the suggested common objective starts with relinquishing the endless and pointless activity of “testing bottom lines,” because both Beijing and Washington are quite clear about what the other side wants in the South China Sea. Suppose either side does not favor an immediate military clash or even a total war, and in that case, immediate restoration of restraint is undoubtedly the top priority for both parties. Trust, even at the minimum level, can only be achieved between adequately self-restraining parties.

Recent Updates and the Consequent Impacts

Tensions in the South China Sea have surged despite the COVID-19 pandemic from 2019 to 2021. Amid disputes across almost all fronts under rapidly deteriorating bilateral relations, both China and the United States built up their presence in the South China Sea to demonstrate their uncompromising resolve — but in different ways. These new changes could bring about some potential and profound consequences.

Key Updates

China sent many survey vessels and fishing ships, conducted several naval exercises, and deployed maritime patrol aircraft in the South China Sea. In April 2020, the Chinese government approved the creation of two new administrative districts in Sansha city, which signifies another move to prove its effective control and governance in the region, despite long-lasting disputes.[12] These are, of course, part of China’s consistent approach to demonstrate and safeguard its firm stance on sovereignty over disputed areas in the South China Sea. The moves and acts adopted by Beijing, especially from a historical view, have been largely reactive if examined in a larger picture that includes other claimants.[13]

The United States, which takes no position on the sovereignty issue but cares deeply about its predominance, status, and allied responsibilities, has intensified its military patrols, passages, overflights, and drills in recent years to assert its presence. According to Ian Storey, senior fellow and co-editor of Contemporary Southeast Asia at the Yusof Ishak Institute, in the first seven months of 2020, the U.S. Navy conducted seven freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs) in the South China Sea, compared to eight in 2019, five in 2018, and four in 2017.[14] Meanwhile, the Trump administration has also decided to send U.S. Coast Guard ships to the West Pacific to conduct regular patrols after a number of short but high-profile passages across China’s neighboring waters by several U.S. Coast Guard cutters.[15]

Meanwhile, a number of recent official documents, strategies, and legislative bills have proved the “strategic weight” of the South China Sea issue in Washington’s overall global and regional strategies. In May 2020, the Trump administration released its guiding document for its China policy, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” which clearly states that “the United States military will continue to exercise the right to navigate and operate wherever international law allows, including in the South China Sea.”[16] Other strategic reports, report series, and proposed legislation by the White House and Congress that give descriptions of the U.S. stance on the South China Sea issue include “National Security Strategy,” “National Defense Strategy,” “National Intelligence Strategy,” “China Military Power Report,” National Defense Authorization Act, South China Sea and East China Sea Sanctions Act of 2019 (introduced), South China Sea Freedom of Navigation Act (introduced), and so on.

At the administrative level, high-ranking U.S. government officials have escalated their criticisms of Beijing’s position on the South China Sea dispute. In a statement released on July 13, 2020, then U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo criticized China for its “unprecedented threat” and claimed that China “has no legal grounds to unilaterally impose its will on the region.” As usual, Pompeo referred to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in his statement to criticize China’s claims, even though the United States has not ratified the convention.

Meanwhile, introducing more multilateral interventions in the South China Sea from America’s traditional allies was an important policy aim of the Trump administration. In August 2020, then U.S. Secretary of Defense Mark Esper called on countries to work with the United States to more effectively counter China in the Indo-Pacific, saying that “the region has become an epicenter of power competition with Beijing.”[17] As Asia Time explained in September 2020, “Major European powers are weighing how to step up their presence in China’s adjacent waters, including the contested South China Sea.”[18]

The above changes at both the strategic and policy levels, unfortunately, have aggravated the long-running confrontation over the South China Sea, especially between China and the United States.

Major Impacts

As a nonclaimant party, the United States has been driven by a deep motivation to intervene in the South China Sea issue. Washington, honestly, may not care much about the sovereignty issues, but it fears China’s ever-expanding influence in the West Pacific that may significantly challenge U.S. predominance in the region. It is still about concerns brought by a rapidly rising challenger to the incumbent power that seeks preemptive measures to preserve the status quo.

However, this brings the U.S. stance on the South China Sea issue into a strange circle: Washington tends to constantly test Beijing’s bottom line rather than maintaining the stability of the South China Sea from a truly neutral standpoint. One of the consequences of such a biased approach is the absurd effect of “the smalls bullying the big,” which suggests that China’s claims are wholly and naturally unlawful, whereas other small claimants’ propositions are automatically justified, and the United States has a responsibility to help the small ones. Naturally, with direct and indirect U.S. support, other claimants may be emboldened to take firm stances in the regional geopolitics involving China.

First, although the intensified FONOPs by U.S. planes and ships may not necessarily lead to direct military clashes, they do significantly lower the bar for unexpected encounters, confrontations, and even low-intensity conflicts. The bottom line is that China will not be deterred by U.S. FONOPs, and the People’s Liberation Army has adopted a more active (or maybe in the future a more confrontational) approach to responding to intensified U.S. military activities in the South China Sea. As mutual trust between China and the United States has dropped to a historical low, it is almost impossible to truly avoid potential conflicts merely by relying on the existing crisis prevention and management mechanisms that may not even be fully functional at present.

Second, the United States is trying to encourage and probably expecting more countries far from the South China Sea region to get involved in the disputes, indicating that the possibility of protraction is still very high. The problem is that no matter how the issue plays out, it cannot change China’s fundamental position. On the contrary, it may significantly complicate the South China Sea issue by blending in other non-claimant countries’ more or less irrelevant claims and interests.[19] Other protracted (if not failed) examples include multilateral efforts and mechanisms to deal with nuclear issues or crises in Iran and North Korea.

Third, repeatedly testing Beijing’s bottom line by conducting more frequent military activities is not conducive to reaching a final settlement of the South China Sea issue based on negotiation and consultation between China and the Southeast Asian claimants. Examples include the full and effective implementation of the Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and steady advancement of the negotiation of the Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. The point is that if the strategic issues are not resolved, there will be no way to resolve the tactical and practical policy issues. Therefore, in the South China Sea, the U.S. containment policy on China has done “more harm than good.”[20]


In a situation where interests cannot be fully aligned, for the time being, finding the greatest common denominator of interests is a wise choice for both sides. Overall peace and stability are vital for free and open sea lanes, preservation and protection of resources and environment, cooperation over maritime security and rescue, and joint development projects. None of these can be fully realized should the tension between two great powers keep rising.

Given the enduring tension and lack of substantive mutual trust, stability based on respective self-restraint should be the greatest common denominator, and it must be realized through a series of verifiable mitigation processes.

1. Seek a rational and pragmatic restraint.

Acknowledging the lack of solid mutual trust between the two sides, both Beijing and Washington must maintain overall self-restraint in the South China Sea, not only by reducing the intensity and frequency of operations in the area but also by significantly easing up on propaganda and media offensives against each other.

2. Relax muscles rather than keep them unduly tense.

Washington should reduce its significantly intensified operations in the South China Sea, including close-up reconnaissance, overflight, and freedom of navigation operations. Reciprocally, Beijing may respond by exercising restraint in the mass island-constructions in the South China Sea.

3. Keep communication channels open, effective, and, most importantly, responsive.

Both sides should keep military-to-military communication channels open, effective, and responsive despite possible impacts of the pandemic and other political or ideological obstructions. In the event of an unexpected crisis, designated personnel from both sides should know who will pick up the calls at the other end of the line, along with a handful of other supplementary options.

4. Prevent further internationalization of the South China Sea issue.

Washington should reassess the potential impacts that the Indo-Pacific Strategy and other multilateral mechanisms like the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue may bring to the South China Sea issue. Moreover, further internationalization would only complicate the existing two-tier structure of the South China Sea issue, introducing more variables and significantly reducing chances of building mutual trust.

5. Welcome Beijing’s leadership in preserving the environment and joint development.

In the spirit of multilateral cooperation, Beijing should take the lead in proposing a long-term regional survey of maritime resources and the South China Sea environment.The survey results could be used as a common reference for environmental preservation and joint maritime resource development by all relevant parties, including the United States. This would help Beijing and Washington find more “binding rules,” which would help maintain peace and stability despite their competition.[21]

6. Washington should reaffirm a truly neutral stance in the South China Sea.

Pragmatism would serve the best interests of the United States on the South China Sea issue. Blindly supporting claimants just because those countries are smaller in size and weaker in power will only make China’s attitude and position stronger or even more confrontational. Under the premise that the situation is relatively de-escalated, China and the United States may even discuss the possibility of jointly issuing a statement on the South China Sea issue based on a new consensus.


The South China Sea issue’s complexity goes far beyond disputes over maritime sovereignty, natural resources, and waterway passages. It is about great power competition at the strategic level. The United States finds it increasingly challenging to keep the Chinese navy in China’s adjacent waters, especially when China has been exerting a “reactive assertiveness” by utilizing its comparative advantages such as massive civilian resources and geographical proximity. The truly constructive course is first to restore stability. It primarily requires the self-restraint of both China and the United States, the two main players in the South China Sea disputes.

However, the resolution of the South China Sea issue is not merely about ending great power competition. It is also about the maritime environment, natural resources, sea-lane security, disaster relief, and more. None of these can be realized without all involved parties’ self-restraint. Beijing and Washington should take the initiative. The rationale is simple and explicit, though challenging: If both China and the United States have enough time and energy at the current moment for a duel, a possible or even better course is to step away from pointless and dangerous confrontation and attend to the survey, maintenance, and joint development of natural resources and maritime environment in the South China Sea.

[1] For example, Taiwan was given a special credit in the revived Indo-Pacific Strategy by Trump’s administration, which touts “strengthening and deepening our relationship with Taiwan.” See “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific: Advancing a Shared Vision,” U.S. Department of State,, accessed Nov. 2, 2020.

[2] Toward a Stronger U.S.-Taiwan Relationship, CSIS,, accessed Nov. 11, 2020.

[3] Richard C. Bush, “U.S.-Taiwan Relations in the Trump administration: No Big Fixes Needed,” Asia Policy, Number 23, January 2017, pp. 29-35.

[4] China-U.S. Joint Communiqués, Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in the United States of America,, accessed Nov. 25, 2020.

[5] “Taiwan lifting US beef, pork import restrictions an ‘important start for economic cooperation’, Tsai Ing-wen says,” South China Morning Post,, accessed Nov. 10, 2020.

[6] U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs David R. Stilwell has portrayed the declassification decisions as part of an effort to bolster Taiwan and “prevent and reverse (the) PRC’s squeezing of … Taiwan’s international space.” , accessed Nov. 1, 2020.

[7] Source: U.S. Federal Register, U.S. Defense Security Cooperation Agency.

[8] The 2020 Democratic Platform,, accessed Nov. 10, 2020.

[9] Oriana Skylar Mastro, Emily Y. Young Carr, “Biden Will Speak Softer but Act Stronger on Taiwan,” Foreign Policy, Nov. 10, 2020,, accessed Nov. 20, 2020.

[10] Chinese scholar Yana Zuo believes that “Washington backs up Taiwan only when the latter serves its strategic interests. Hence, Washington is expected to abandon Taiwan to avoid entrapment.” Gang Lin and Wenxin Zhou claim that “‘abandoning Taiwan’ as well as the Cold War mind-set of playing wildly the ‘Taiwan card’ are far from the mainstream view in U.S. policy circles today, which favors maintaining the status quo.” See Yana Zuo, “The U.S. Global Strategy and Its Taiwan Policy,” The China Review, Vol. 18, No. 3 (August 2018), pp.149-176; Gang Lin and Wenxin Zhou, “Does Taiwan Matter to the United States? Policy Debates on Taiwan Abandonment and Beyond,” The China Review, Vol. 18, No. 3 (August 2018), pp.177-206.

[11] Susan Thornton, “Averting Conflict in the South China Sea: Steps to Restore Rules and Restraint,”, accessed Nov. 26, 2020.

[12] Xinhua News Agency,, accessed Nov. 19, 2020.

[13] According to Greg Austin, “In 1996, Vietnam occupied 24 features in the Spratly Islands. At that time, according to the same source, China occupied nine. By 2015, according to the United States government, Vietnam occupied 48 features, and China occupied eight.” See the testimony by then U.S. Assistant Secretary of Defense David Shear before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations on May 13, 2015, accessed Nov. 25, 2020; and Greg Austin, “Who Is the Biggest Aggressor in the South China Sea?,” The Diplomat, June 18, 2015,, accessed Nov. 25, 2020.

[14] Ian Storey, “The South China Sea Dispute in 2020-2021,” Perspective, Issue: 2020 No. 97, Sept. 3, 2020,, accessed Nov. 22, 2020.

[15] Md. Monjur Hasan, He Jian, “Spratly Islands Dispute in the South China Sea: Potential Solutions,” Journal of East Asia and International Law, Vol. 12, No. 1 (2019), pp.145-168.

[16] White House, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,”, accessed Nov. 10, 2020.

[17] Sarah Zheng, “US-China relations: Mark Esper urges allies to help counter China in Indo-Pacific,” South China Morning Post, Aug. 27, 2020,, accessed Nov. 20, 2020.

[18] Richard Javad Heydarian, “European powers weigh wading into South China Sea,” Asia Times, Sept. 16, 2020,, accessed Nov. 25, 2020.

[19] In fact, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany have openly rejected China’s claims in the South China Sea by citing the Philippines’ victory at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague. See “UK, France, Germany refute China’s expansive South China Sea claims,”, accessed Jan. 10, 2021; also “‘Global Britain’ takes aim at China in South China Sea,”, accessed Jan. 10, 2021.

[20] Victor Teixeira, “The United States’ China Containment Strategy and the South China Sea Dispute,” Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, Issue 13, No. 3 (2019), pp.166-193.

[21] Song Xue, “Why Joint Development Agreements Fail: Implications for the South China Sea Dispute,” Contemporary Southeast Asia, Vol. 41, No. 3, (2019), pp.418-446.