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I have no hotline to China, Indo-Pacific commander pick says

Adm. John Aquilino asks to be part of discussion if US alters Taiwan policy

Two red phones were seen on Chinese President Xi Jinping's desk as he gave his New Year address. (Screenshot from CGTN)

NEW YORK -- U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino, the nominee to be the next leader of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, told senators in his confirmation hearing Tuesday that he will advocate for a direct line of communication, or "red phone," with his Chinese counterpart to de-escalate and manage crises.

"I do not have a direct communication with my counterpart," Aquilino said, speaking of his current capacity as commander of the Pacific Fleet. "I know Adm. Davidson has advocated for that ability at his level. And I know the chairman does have a connection that he can utilize," he said, referring to his predecessor, Indo-Pacific Commander Philip Davidson, and to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"If confirmed, I would continue to advocate for that connection to ensure there's an ability to de-escalate if there were an event, and the ability to not let it go out of control," Aquilino said. "I think that communication mechanism could be effective, if that connection was with someone who had decision-making authority."

The U.S. and China have tried for years to put in place a functional hotline between their leaderships.

After the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, then-U.S. President George H.W. Bush is said to have attempted to speak with Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping by phone. But with no hotline in place, the call never happened.

U.S. Navy Adm. John Aquilino, nominee to be commander of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 23.

Shortly after, the U.S. suspended military contacts with China and imposed sanctions on arms sales in response to the crackdown.

In 1993, the administration of President Bill Clinton reengaged with China, including its military, the People's Liberation Army. But efforts to deepen military-to-military contacts have had their ups and downs, each time halting after such incidents as the 1995-96 Taiwan Strait crisis, the mistaken NATO bombing of a Chinese embassy in 1999, and the EP-3 aircraft collision crisis in 2001.

In February 2008, the U.S. and China signed a formal agreement to establish a new hotline, called the Defense Telephone Link, but it has reportedly been used only a handful of times. Aquilino is thought to have been referring to this mechanism in Tuesday's comment on the direct link on the level of the Joint Chiefs chairman.

The 2008 agreement stipulates that the side proposing the call should provide 48 hours' advance notice and that both sides should identify the callers and a mutually acceptable time. In a crisis, a call may be requested without advance notice.

Establishing a working-level hotline was one of the many China-related topics that dominated Tuesday's hearing. Divining Beijing's intentions toward Taiwan was another.

"They view it as their No. 1 priority," Aquilino said when asked by China hawk Sen. Tom Cotton about the importance of reunification to the Chinese leadership. "The rejuvenation of the Chinese Communist Party is at stake," he said, alluding to Chinese President Xi Jinping's signature slogan.

At a recent congressional hearing, incumbent Indo-Pacific Commander Davidson said he believes that China could take military action within the next six years to reunify with the self-ruled island.

Aquilino would not be pinned down on a specific timeline but did say that "my opinion is this problem is much closer to us than most think, and we have to take this on" and put deterrence capabilities in place.

But he also warned of the dangers of rushing in to alter Washington's long-held stance on Taiwan, which is based on the Three Communiques between the U.S. and China, which established the current diplomatic relations with Beijing; the Taiwan Relations Act, which allows the sale of arms to Taiwan; and the Six Assurances, which include language stating that the U.S. has not agreed to set a date for ending arms sales to Taiwan.

"The current policies have been able to keep the status quo in place now for a number of years," Aquilino said. "I would be open to, and hope to be -- if confirmed -- included in any conversation should we decide to change or adjust that policy."

He added: "We would have to ensure we understand the risk, and be extremely thoughtful, if we were to go down that path."

Cotton asked the admiral whether the middle of spring would be the best time of year for the PLA to launch an invasion of Taiwan, considering light, weather and sea conditions.

Aquilino replied in the affirmative.

Cotton then warned Aquilino that next spring might be a dangerous time frame, saying Russia invaded Crimea on Feb. 27, 2014, four days after the conclusion of the Sochi Winter Olympics.

"The Beijing Winter Olympics end Feb. 23 next year," Cotton said.

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