NEW YORK -- China is set on controlling the Indo-Pacific, and without a direct line of communication between leaders in Washington and Beijing, a small incident can spark a crisis, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers Thursday.
Austin described the lack of a hotline -- popularly called a red phone -- as a "critical" issue.
He was answering a question from Maine Sen. Angus King, who likened the situation to that portrayed in "The Guns of August," the late historian Barbara Tuchman's Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the lead-up to World War I. The June 1914 assassination of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne quickly exploded into armed conflict, owing partly to the lack of a mechanism to de-escalate tensions.
At a defense budget hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee, King noted that 11 copies of the book's Chinese translation were available on Amazon.com. "I think what I might do is buy those and send them to the Politburo in Beijing," he joked.
But King was not flippant about the dangers he sees. "I believe one of the most serious risks this country faces today is accidental conflict with China -- some kind of conflict in the South China Sea, the Strait of Taiwan -- and the danger of escalation from that accidental conflict," he said.
"It's concerning to me that we don't seem to have an effective hotline, direct line, whatever you want to call it, with China" at the presidential or defense secretary level, King said. "I understand the Chinese are reluctant about this, but I believe this ... should be a national security priority."
"I absolutely agree with you," Austin said when King asked whether better links on both levels would be an important way to mitigate the risk of accidental conflict escalating.
"As we look at some of the aggressive behavior that we've witnessed from China in the Indo-Pacific, you know, I'm concerned about something that could happen that could spark a crisis, and I think ... we need the ability to be able to talk with both our allies and partners but also our adversaries, or potential adversaries."
"I share your concern and I absolutely agree with you that this is critical," he said.
At the hearing, Austin was repeatedly asked by senators about his assessment of Chinese intentions and whether the U.S. is doing enough to fight and win against China in a war.
"I do believe that their goal is to control the Indo-Pacific," Austin said. "And I also believe that they desire to be the dominant or preeminent country in the world. And so I think they're working towards that end."
But when Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri pressed on the need to be prepared to deter China from taking action on Taiwan "in the next three to five, seven years," Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the U.S. military, cautioned that the main objective should be deterrence and not conflict.
"The key here is deterrence," the four-star Army general said. "We are in a condition of strategic great-power competition. It needs to stay at competition, and deterrence is key to prevent it from going from competition to incident or competition to war."
In simple terms, Milley said, deterrence works when one side has a capability and the opponent knows it -- "you've got to communicate that capability to your opponent."
"You have to communicate your will to use it if necessary, and both actors have to be rational," he said. "If all of those components are there, in simple terms, you'll be able to achieve a state of deterrence. Thus far, it's achieved."
Questioned on U.S. military power, Milley said: "If you're talking about a [Chinese] military invasion of Taiwan, crossing the straits, the Taiwan Straits, with a sizable military force to seize an island the size of Taiwan against the military that they have and with the population that they have, that's an extraordinarily complex and difficult operation."
"Even if against an unopposed force, that's a very hard thing to do," he said. "But I can assure you that we have the capabilities if there were political decisions made in accordance with the Taiwan Relations Act and so on. But we do have military capabilities."