Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III spoke with his Chinese counterpart on Wednesday for the first time since becoming Pentagon chief more than a year ago, breaking a communications deadlock that U.S. officials saw as increasingly dangerous due to concerns that Beijing was able to provide military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.
Austin, who has called China the US military’s leading long-term challenge but has been forced to focus heavily on Russia this year, requested the phone call with Chinese General Wei Fenge after months of unsuccessful attempts to talk to General Xu Qiliang, the Chinese secretary general . highest-ranking uniformed officer in the military structure of the ruling 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 his official 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-Defense Secretary Mark Esper raised a U.S. request with him for greater transparency about the origins of coronavirus and other issues.
Austin had no expectation of a major breakthrough on key issues with Wei during the call for 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, who spoke on condition of anonymity prior to the call. has not been published.
Austin intended the call, which lasted about 45 minutes, as a follow-up to President Biden’s video call with Chinese President Xi Jinping on March 18, in which the US leader outlined the harsh consequences that Beijing would face if it provided military or financial assistance for the Moscow war in Ukraine. The White House gave no indication that Biden received any assurances from Xi, and it was not immediately clear how Wei responded on Wednesday.
For years, Washington has portrayed China as seeking to reshape the international order in order to assert its interests more forcefully and to build up sufficient military strength to eventually oust 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 far smaller than the United States.
On 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 democratically controlled island 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 of Ukraine. At times, Beijing has tried to distance itself from the conflict, but has 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 Antony J. Blinken and Biden’s National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan met in Anchorage with their Chinese counterparts, who surprised their US hosts by complaining about a litany. of questions.
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.