China think tank calls for U.S. to keep military communications open

BEIJING (Reuters) - The U.S. and Chinese militaries must keep communication channels open and take steps to prevent conflict even as ties worsen, an influential Chinese government think tank said on Tuesday, with one adviser suggesting an invitation to a major U.S. drill.

Relations between the two largest economies have nosedived in recent months as they argue over everything from trade to the coronavirus, with China also angered by U.S. military activity in the disputed South China Sea and near Chinese-claimed Taiwan.

In a report, China’s National Institute for South China Seas, struck a more moderate tone than recent denunciations of Washington by Beijing, warning that worsening military ties would boost the possibility of armed conflict or crisis.

The Trump administration has said it is in a “great-power competition” with China and has steadily increased the number of soldiers stationed in the Asia-Pacific region to 375,000, including 60% of its Navy ships, the report said.

“Stable military relations ... must become the stabilising factor in bilateral relations,” institute head Wu Shicun told a media briefing.

The report urged both sides to keep open channels of communication, such as a hotline set up in 2008 between their defence departments.

Government adviser Zhu Feng, the dean of the Institute of International Studies at Nanjing University, said communication was important to prevent misjudgement.

“If we don’t communicate, the China-U.S. relationship will become very childish,” he said at the conference.

“We are both mature big powers and must not handle bilateral relations by criticising and attacking each other in an emotional way.”

Since the formation of the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command in 2018 after a major restructuring, he said, it has had almost no contact with its Chinese counterpart.

Zhu urged Washington to invite China to join RIMPAC, the world’s largest multilateral maritime warfare exercise, as an “acquaintance-building measure” for soldiers from both sides.

The United States disinvited China in 2018 as punishment for activities in the South China Sea.

Last month, Taiwan’s defence minister said it was also “seeking an opportunity” to participate.

Reporting by Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Clarence Fernandez