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The Chinese counterpart hears the US Pentagon chief for the first time

On Wednesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart. This was the first meeting since he became Pentagon chief over a year ago. It broke a communication impasse that American officials considered increasingly dangerous due to concern that Beijing might offer military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

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The Chinese counterpart hears the US Pentagon chief for the first time

Austin, who considers China the U.S. army's most serious long-term threat, but has been forced into focusing heavily on Russia this past year, requested a telephone conversation with Gen. Wei Fenghe. This was after months of unsuccessful attempts to talk with Gen. Xu Qiliang (the highest ranking uniformed officer within the Communist Party military structure).

Austin wanted to speak to Xu as he is the deputy chairman of the party's Central Military Commission. This commission controls the People's Liberation Army. Beijing refused to compromise and allowed Austin to speak to Wei. Wei is Austin's counterpart as defense minister, but he ranks lower in the hierarchy than Xu and has less military operational clout.

Austin's predecessors had often spoken with Wei. Most recently, on Aug. 6, 2020 Mark Esper, then-Defense Secretary, raised with Austin a U.S. request to have more transparency on the origins COVID-19 as well as other issues.

According to a senior defense official involved in the arrangement, Austin did not expect to make a breakthrough with Wei.

The Pentagon stated that Austin and Wei had discussed U.S.-Chinese defense relationships, regional security issues, and "Russian's unprovoked invasion" of Ukraine in a short statement following the call. It did not provide any details.

Beijing's defense ministry provided a more detailed account. According to the defense ministry in Beijing, Wei "expressed his solemn position on Taiwan and stressed that Taiwan is an unalienable part China. It is a reality and fact that can't be changed."

According to the ministry, the two men had a discussion on "maritime security and air security questions." Wei also told Austin that China demands that the United States cease military provocations at sea, and that it not use the Ukrainian question to discredit, threaten, and pressure China.

According to Xinhua News Agency, Wei said that China wants to have "sound and stable" relations with the United States. According to the report, Wei said that "the United States should never underestimate China's determination & capability."

The call lasted approximately 45 minutes and Austin was referring to President Joe Biden’s video call on March 18 with President Xi Jinping in which he outlined stiff consequences for the Chinese if they provide military or economic support to Russia's war against Ukraine. The White House did not indicate that Biden had received any assurances from China's leader.

Washington has long portrayed China, as a country seeking to reshape international order in order to better defend its national interests and build sufficient military power to eventually replace the United States as Asia's dominant power.

Since Biden's election, the U.S.-China relationship has been more complicated than ever. Biden has repeatedly criticised China for military provocations towards Taiwan, abuses of ethnic minorities as well as efforts in Hong Kong to suppress pro-democracy activists. American officials have also expressed concern over China's massive increase in the size of its nuclear arsenal. However, it is still far smaller than America.

The senior defense official stated that Austin repeated Biden's message on Wednesday about the importance of managing U.S. China strategic competition. This includes in the nuclear, cyber, and space arenas. He also stressed the need to improve crisis communications between global powers.

The official also expressed concern about Washington's military provocations against Taiwan, an island democracy which Beijing insists must be united with China's mainland. The official also raised concerns from the U.S. about Chinese activities in South China Sea, and East China Sea. He also expressed concern about the U.S.'s worries about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

With the Russian invasion, it may seem that the long-strained relationship between America and China has reached a new low. While Beijing tried to distance itself from the conflict, it avoided criticizing Moscow. Beijing's provocative actions at other times include amplifying unverified Russian claims about Ukraine running chemical and biological weapon labs with U.S. assistance.

American officials expressed concern about the possibility of a Moscow–Beijing alliance with authoritarian states. In February, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin stated that the friendship among their countries "has not limits." However, it remains to see if the Russian invasion of Ukraine has cooled Xi’s desire for closer ties.

The first high-level meeting between the Biden administration and Chinese officials took place in March 2021. Secretary of State Anton Blinken, Jake Sullivan (Biden's national security advisor), met with their Chinese counterparts in Anchorage, Alaska. They were surprised by their hosts' complaints about a variety of issues.

There have been several phone and video calls since then between Blinken, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, but very few meetings in person. These calls were dominated by current issues, including Afghanistan, Russia's invasion in Ukraine, North Korea, and Iran. Blinken has not yet visited China and Wendy Sherman , Deputy Secretary of States, is the highest ranking U.S. diplomat who has traveled to that country.


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