US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with Chinese counterpart ‘when that person is named’

Top-level US-China military talks must wait until Beijing appoints a new defence minister, the Pentagon said on Thursday, a day after Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping agreed to resume direct military communications.

“As these agreements were just reached yesterday, we know that we have work to do with [China’s] military to solidify these principles for actions,” said Sabrina Singh, the deputy Pentagon press secretary. US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin “will meet with his counterpart when that person is named”, she said.

Beijing has not appointed a new defence minister since Li Shangfu was removed from the post in October for unknown reasons.

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Austin, who is visiting Indonesia during an Indo-Pacific trip, said on Thursday that there was no substitute for consistent and substantive dialogue between senior leaders. “So we’ll continue to seek practical discussions from a senior leader level to the working level,” he said.

It is too soon to tell whether China’s pledge to resume military-to-military dialogue signals a broader intent to scale back provocations in the region, so it is critical that the countries maintain open lines of communication, Austin said.

“I won’t make any predictions about China’s future behaviour,” he said. “What I will say is that we will continue to need the mechanism to manage crises and make sure we prevent things from spiralling out of control from time to time.”

“That’s even more important if activities in the region have increased – if unhelpful things like close intercepts ... have increased” he added. “All the more reason that senior leaders need to be able to talk to each other.”

Li, who was sanctioned by the US in 2018 for buying military equipment from a Russian arms exporter, declined to hold a formal meeting with Austin during a security forum in Singapore in June, where their exchange stopped at a handshake.

US-China thaw raises hopes for military dialogue breakthrough

The last time Austin met with his Chinese counterpart was roughly a year ago in Cambodia, when he held a dialogue with Wei Fenghe.

China reportedly declined a request for a phone call between Austin and Wei, who was then defence minister, after the US shot down a Chinese spy balloon in February.

Beijing cut off three key military communication channels after Representative Nancy Pelosi, then the US House speaker, visited self-ruled Taiwan in August 2022.

During Wednesday’s summit, Biden and Xi agreed to restore these three lines, including calls between leaders of military theatres, as well as talks on defence policy coordination and maritime safety.

Li Shangfu was removed from the post of Chinese defence minister in October for unknown reasons. Photo: Reuters

Washington said Beijing’s reluctance to engage in military talks added to the danger of miscalculation as Beijing steps up activity in the South China Sea and around Taiwan.

Beijing said Washington had increased its manoeuvers, which it called “provocations”, near China’s territory.

In October, the Pentagon said that over the last two years, China’s military has engaged in more than 180 incidents of “coercive and risky operational behaviour” against US assets acting lawfully in international airspace over the East and South China seas.

There have been increased engagement between the two militaries in recent months.

The US sent a delegation led by Xanthi Carras, the Pentagon’s principal official for issues related to China, to Beijing’s Xiangshan forum last month. The head of US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral John Aquilino, met with Chinese military officials at a conference in Fiji in August.

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