WASHINGTON: Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday for the first time since he became Pentagon chief more than a year ago, breaking a communications deadlock that U.S. officials saw as increasingly dangerous because of concerns Beijing could provide military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Austin, which calls China the US military’s leading long-term challenge but has been forced to focus heavily on Russia this year, requested the telephone conversation with General Wei Fenge after months of unsuccessful efforts to talk to General Xu Qiliang, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the military structure of the Communist Party.
Austin wanted to talk to Xu because Xu, as deputy chairman of the party’s central military commission that controls the People’s Liberation Army, is more influential than Wei.
But Beijing insisted on sticking to the protocol and getting Austin to talk to Wei, who is officially his counterpart as defense minister but ranks below Xu in the hierarchy and has less military operational influence.
Austin’s predecessors had typically spoken to Wei, most recently on August 6, 2020, when then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper raised a U.S. request with him for greater transparency about the origins of Covid-19 and other issues.
Austin had no expectation of a major breakthrough in key issues with Wei when he called a secure telephone connection established by the Pentagon and China’s Ministry of National Defense in 2008, according to a senior defense official involved in the event and spoke on condition of anonymity prior to the call, which has not been made public.
Austin intended the call, which lasted about 45 minutes, as a follow-up to President Joe Biden’s video call with President Xi Jinping on March 18, outlining the dire consequences the Chinese would face if they provided military or economic assistance. assistance to Russia’s war. in Ukraine.
The White House gave no indication that Biden received any assurances from the Chinese leader, and it was not immediately clear how Wei reacted on Wednesday.
For years, Washington has portrayed China as seeking to reshape the international order in order to better assert its national interests and to build up sufficient military force to eventually displace the United States as the dominant power in Asia.
Relations between the United States and China have become more strained on several levels since the beginning of Biden’s presidency.
Biden has repeatedly criticized China for military provocations against Taiwan, human rights violations against ethnic minorities, and efforts to suppress pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.
U.S. officials have also expressed concern about signs that China is greatly increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, even though it is still smaller than the United States.
In Wednesday’s phone call, Austin Biden reiterated messages about the importance of managing US-Chinese strategic competition, including in the nuclear, space and cyber arenas, and improving crisis communication between global powers, the senior defense official said.
Austin also raised U.S. concerns over what Washington sees as Chinese military provocations against Taiwan, the island democracy that Beijing has insisted must eventually be reconciled with mainland China, the official said. He also expressed US concerns about Chinese activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea and raised US concerns about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The long-strained relationship between the United States and China may have reached a new low with the Russian invasion. At times, Beijing has tried to distance itself from the conflict, but avoided directly criticizing Moscow.
At other times, Beijing’s actions have been provocative, including reinforcing unconfirmed Russian claims that Ukraine operates US-backed chemical and biological weapons laboratories.
U.S. officials have expressed concern about the prospect of a Moscow-Beijing alliance of authoritarian states.
In February, Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the friendship between their counties “has no borders”, although it is still unknown whether the subsequent Russian invasion of Ukraine has cooled Xi’s interest in closer ties.
The Biden administration’s first high-level meeting with Chinese officials came in March 2021, when Secretary of State Anton Blinken and Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, met in Anchorage, Alaska, with their Chinese colleagues, who surprised their US hosts by complaining about a litany of problems.
Since then, there have been a number of phone and video calls between Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, but relatively few personal meetings.
These calls have been largely dominated by issues of the time ranging from the situation in Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea and Iran.
Blinken has not yet visited China, and the most senior U.S. diplomat to travel to the country has been Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.