Managing U.S.-China Crises: Problems, Pitfalls, and Prospects

As the U.S.-China relationship becomes more contentious, the possibility of a severe political-military crisis between the two countries is poised to increase in the years ahead. This is especially true given their growing differences over Taiwan and Asian maritime disputes, and the intensifying military jostling that is taking place along China’s coastline. Meanwhile, the likelihood that any such crisis can be managed effectively by Washington and Beijing is arguably declining in light of deepening suspicions between the two sides, and the continued absence of reliable bilateral crisis management procedures and mechanisms beyond the presence of telephone links. The shortcomings of U.S.-China crisis management capabilities were most recently on display when former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan and the presence of a Chinese surveillance balloon in U.S airspace were allowed to derail crisis communication dialogues between the two sides, intensify invectives, and suspend plans for the U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken’s first trip to Beijing.


Chad Sbragia

Chad Sbragia is a Research Staff Member at the Institute for Defense Analyses where he concentrates on U.S. national security and defense policy and analyses of China’s national and defense strategies and governance. Prior to joining IDA, Mr. Sbragia served as the inaugural Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China within the Office of the Secretary of Defense. Previously, Mr. Sbragia served as the Director of the China Research Group for the U.S. Marine Corps. He also served the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command as the Acting Director of the China Strategic Focus Group and as the Country Director for China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Mongolia. Mr. Sbragia served in the U.S. Marine Corps from 1985-2012 as an Infantry Officer and China Foreign Area Officer, including assignment as the U.S. Marine Attaché within the U.S. Embassy Beijing.

Susan A. Thornton

Susan A. Thornton is a retired senior U.S. diplomat with almost three decades of experience with the U.S. State Department in Eurasia and East Asia. She is currently a Senior Fellow and Visiting Lecturer in Law at the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center. She is also the director of the Forum on Asia-Pacific Security at the National Committee on American Foreign Policy and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Until July 2018, Thornton was Acting Assistant Secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the Department of State and led East Asia policymaking amid crises with North Korea, escalating trade tensions with China, and a fast-changing international environment. In previous State Department roles, she worked on U.S. policy toward China, Korea and the former Soviet Union and served in leadership positions at U.S. embassies in Central Asia, Russia, the Caucasus and China.

Michael D. Swaine (Moderator)

Michael D. Swaine, a Senior Research Fellow at the Quincy Institute’s East Asia program, is one of the most prominent American scholars of Chinese security studies. He comes to QI from Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he worked for nearly twenty years as a senior fellow specializing in Chinese defense and foreign policy, U.S.-China relations, and East Asian international relations. Swaine served as a senior policy analyst at the RAND Corporation. Swaine has authored and edited more than a dozen books and monographs, including Remaining Aligned on the Challenges Facing Taiwan (with Ryo Sahashi; 2019), Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Strategic Net Assessment (with Nicholas Eberstadt et al; 2015) and many journal articles and book chapters.