Defense officials from China and the U.S. have held two days of talks in a small sign of progress amid a continuing sharp downturn in relations.
The secure video conference held Tuesday and Wednesday was led by Major General Huang Xueping, deputy direct of the People’s Liberation Army’s Office for International Military Cooperation, and U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for China Michael Chase.
Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian on Thursday said the sides “exchanged in-depth views on relations between the two countries and the two militaries and issues of common concern.”
However, he blamed “continuous provocation and containment” of China by the U.S. for the “considerable difficulties and challenges” between the two militaries.
“China’s sovereignty, dignity and core interests brook no violations,” Wu said at a monthly briefing. “Regarding the relationship between the two armed forces, we welcome communication, welcome cooperation, face differences and oppose coercion.”
In a statement issued in Washington, Department of Defense spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Martin Meiners said the meeting was “an important component of the Biden-Harris administration’s ongoing effort to responsibly manage the competition between the U.S. and the PRC by maintaining open lines of communication with the PRC.”
During the talks, he said the two sides held “a frank, in-depth, and open discussion on a range of issues.”
“Both sides reaffirmed consensus to keep communication channels open. The U.S. side also made clear our commitment to uphold shared principles with our allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region,” he said.
Relations between China and the United States are facing the worst strain in decades over trade, technology, human rights, and Chinese military activities in the South China Sea, where Beijing has built airstrips and other infrastructure atop man-made islands.
Military-to-military ties have been characterized by deep mistrust, with the U.S. accusing China of a lack of transparency as it massively upgrades the capabilities of the PLA, the military wing of the ruling Communist Party.
China has been angered by the U.S. Navy sending ships to sail close to islands it controls in what Washington calls freedom of navigation operations, along with U.S. support for Taiwan.
President Joe Biden has maintained a tough line on China, but has sought better communication with Beijing. The talks between Huang and Chase are believed to mark the first direct high-level contact between defense officials under the Biden administration.
Reports earlier this summer indicated that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had been trying unsuccessfully to schedule a call with his Chinese counterpart. In part, the lack of communication stemmed from disagreement over who, exactly, is the U.S. defense secretary’s counterpart in China. Austin reportedly sought to talk with General Xu Qiliang, who as vice chair of the Central Military Commission is second in the Chinese military’s chain of command. Beijing wanted Austin to speak with China’s defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, even though in China that position is far less influential than Austin’s is in the United States.
The talks also follow revelations that the top U.S. military officer, Army General Mark Milley, made a pair of calls to his Chinese counterpart on October 30, 2020 and January 8, 2021 to reassure him during the waning days of the Trump administration.
Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Tuesday he was responding to a “significant degree of intelligence” that China was worried about a U.S. attack. He said that such military-to-military communications are critical to prevent war between great powers that possess nuclear weapons.
China has not commented on the calls.
Wu also reiterated China’s opposition to a three-way strategic defense alliance announced by Australia, the U.K., and the U.S. that includes building nuclear-propelled submarines for Australia. Beijing views the arrangement as firmly directed at containing its development.
“China urges the three countries to abandon their Cold War mentality and zero-sum game thinking, revoke the mistaken decision to develop nuclear submarine cooperation,” Wu said.