Pentagon warns Beijing about its military ties to Russia, even as Xi and Putin meet

A top Pentagon official warned a counterpart in Beijing on Thursday about its increasing cooperation with Moscow, even as Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin were pledging closer economic and military ties.

The US Defence Department said that Ely Ratner, its assistant secretary for Indo-Pacific security, had expressed “serious concern” over the ties during a video link with Major General Li Bin, the director of China’s Central Military Commission office for International Military Cooperation.

Ratner also pressed Li over escalating tension between China and the Philippines near a contested South China Sea shoal as well as Moscow’s ties with North Korea.

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“Ratner underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, and he raised concerns over dangerous PRC actions against lawfully operating Philippine vessels in the South China Sea,” the Pentagon said in a readout.

“He also discussed the relationship between Russia and [North Korea], as well as serious concern over the PRC’s support for Russia’s defence industrial base that enables Russia’s war in Ukraine.”

The Russian embassy in Beijing on Wednesday, ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s two-day trip to the country. Photo: AFP

The last point is one that many Washington policymakers, including Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, have flagged frequently in recent weeks. The issue has become more pressing as Russia’s military advances deeper into Ukrainian territory.

Haines told an Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on May 2 that “China definitely wants Russia to be working with them and we see no reason why [the Kremlin] wouldn’t.”

She also testified that China’s economic exchange with the country, while not providing lethal weapons, has allowed for a “reconstitution” of Russia’s military.

Putin arrived in Beijing on Thursday for a two-day trip that started with a pledge to “further deepen mutual military trust and cooperation”.

That cooperation includes an expansion of the scope of joint military exercises, scheduling regular joint maritime and air patrols, and strengthening coordination under bilateral and multilateral frames. Putin and Xi also pledged to build closer ties in their energy and finance sectors.

Ratner’s discussion with Li on Thursday was the latest high-level military-to-military exchange that follows pledges by Xi and US President Joe Biden during their summit in November to resume such dialogues – even as the subjects of the talks, Russia’s war against Ukraine in particular, reflect the deep divide between the two sides.

Last month, US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with China’s defence minister, Admiral Dong Jun, the first such communication with his Chinese counterpart in over two years and the first since Dong was appointed in December.

The contact followed a protracted period of tension, diplomatic snubs, rhetoric and near misses in the South China Sea between the two militaries.

Austin is expected to meet in person with Dong in Singapore later this month, Reuters reported on Thursday, citing an anonymous source.

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