Austin speaks with Chinese counterpart in latest reopening of talks

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U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke Tuesday morning with China’s minister of defense — the highest level of military communications to resume between the two countries.

In a readout of the call, the Pentagon said they discussed the war in Ukraine, North Korea, operating in the South China Sea and U.S. policy toward Taiwan.

The last time Austin held such a conversation was in late 2022. Since then, China’s defense minister seat has turned over twice — partly due to a broad anti-corruption purge in the Chinese military. The position is now held by Adm. Dong Jun, who Austin spoke with for the first time on Tuesday.

China ended most military talks with the U.S. in 2022, after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Ca., visited Taiwan, which China’s government considers a rogue breakaway province.

Dong’s predecessor — Gen. Li Shangfu — was sanctioned by the U.S. government for his former role in buying weapons for the Chinese military. China said Li wouldn’t speak with his American counterpart while under sanctions, though U.S. officials disagreed with the rationale. Last year, while attending a conference in Singapore, Li and Austin shared only a handshake.

The short greeting reflected the state of U.S.-China relations, especially as it concerned their militaries. After Pelosi’s visit, China became more aggressive in the Taiwan Strait. Last fall, Pentagon officials publicly criticized the Chinese military for a pattern of “reckless” behavior around American ships and aircraft — like flying a jet just feet away from a U.S. bomber.

The two countries agreed to resume military talks at a summit in November near San Francisco. There, U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese Leader Xi Jinping pledged to have their governments speak more often in an effort to relax the relationship. Austin’s call is now part of a long queue of such meetings.

Biden and Xi spoke over the phone earlier in April.

Since November, American officials have said China has stopped the unsafe behavior around U.S. forces. But that hasn’t been the case around America’s allies, such as the Philippines. Manila resupplies an outpost on Second Thomas Shoal, a reef in the South China Sea, about once a month. On recent trips, Chinese forces have harassed Filipino vessels, firing water cannons and even disabling one ship.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking with reporters this week, said that behavior “risks escalation.” America has a mutual defense treaty with the Philippines.

With the call Tuesday, the Pentagon has almost completed its first lap of military talks agreed to in the summit in November. The two countries’ top military officers have already spoken with each other, as have other defense officials and military operators responsible for the Pacific.

“They’re not asking us for anything in return for holding the exchanges,” the defense official said. “We’re not offering anything in return.”

Noah Robertson is the Pentagon reporter at Defense News. He previously covered national security for the Christian Science Monitor. He holds a bachelor’s degree in English and government from the College of William & Mary in his hometown of Williamsburg, Virginia.

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