US, China to resume military-to-military talks in ‘coming months’: Austin

US and China defence chiefs meet for talks in Singapore amid growing tensions between Washington and Beijing.

Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun, right, and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin at a meeting in Singapore
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defence Minister Dong Jun attend a bilateral meeting [DoD/Chad J. McNeeley/Handout via Reuters]

The United States and China will resume military-to-military communications “in the coming months”, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has announced, a move that could ease growing tensions between the two countries.

Austin met with his Chinese counterpart Dong Jun on Friday on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, in the first substantive face-to-face talks between the two defence chiefs in 18 months. The meeting followed a video conference call in April.

Beijing later hailed the “stabilising” security ties between China and the US, whose relationship has become increasingly rocky amid global economic competition and tensions over Taiwan and the South China Sea.

Austin and Dong met for over an hour at the luxury hotel hosting the annual security forum that is attended by defence officials from around the world.

Austin said telephone conversations between US and Chinese military commanders would resume “in the coming months”, according to a readout released by the Pentagon.

He also welcomed plans for a “crisis-communications working group” with China by the end of the year, the statement said.

Describing the talks as “positive”, Chinese defence spokesman Wu Qian told reporters that military-to-military relations were “currently stopping their decline and stabilising”.

But Wu cautioned that it was not possible for Beijing and Washington to solve all bilateral problems in one meeting, highlighting their thorniest dispute over Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory.

This year’s Shangri-La Dialogue comes a week after China held military drills around Taiwan and warned of war days after the inauguration of President William Lai Ching-te, whom Beijing has described as a “dangerous separatist”.

The dispute over Taiwan tops the list of disagreements between the two countries.

“The Taiwan issue is purely China’s internal affairs, external forces have no right to interfere, and the United States’ actions seriously violate the one China principle,” Wu said, referring to Washington’s decision to congratulate Lai and send a delegation to the ceremony.

Austin said China’s military exercises were “provocative” and insisted it should not use Taipei’s “political transition… as a pretext for coercive measures.”

Beijing is also furious over Washington’s deepening defence ties in the Asia Pacific, particularly with the Philippines, and its regular deployment of warships and fighter jets in the Taiwan Strait and South China Sea.

In recent weeks, the Philippines hosted the largest ever joint military exercise with the US. On Thursday, China’s defence ministry condemned the deployment of a US intermediate-range missile system in the northern Philippines during military drills in April, saying it “brought huge risks of war into the region”.

China views the activities as part of a decades-long US effort to contain it.

Easing friction

President Joe Biden’s administration and China have been stepping up communication to ease friction between the nuclear-armed rivals, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken visiting Beijing and Shanghai last month.

A key focus has been the resumption of military-to-military dialogue.

China scrapped military communications with the United States in 2022 in response to then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Tensions between Washington and Beijing deteriorated further the following year, including an alleged Chinese spy balloon that was shot down over US airspace, a meeting between Taiwan’s then-president Tsai Ing-wen and Pelosi’s successor Kevin McCarthy, and American military aid for Taipei.

The two sides agreed after a summit between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Biden in November last year to restart high-level military talks.

That includes a communications channel between the US Asia Pacific command chief and Chinese commanders responsible for military operations near Taiwan, Japan and in the South China Sea.

Chinese and US forces have had a series of close encounters in the disputed waterway that China claims as its own almost in its entirety.

“The Secretary [Austin] made clear that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international law allows,” the Pentagon said on Friday.

Austin warned prior to Biden and Xi agreeing to resume military-to-military dialogue that accidents have the potential to spiral out of control, especially in the absence of open lines of communication between American and Chinese forces.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies