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Defense Secretary Austin speaks to his Chinese counterpart for the first time

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III.
(Alex Brandon / Associated Press)
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Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III spoke Wednesday with his Chinese counterpart for the first time since becoming Pentagon chief more than a year ago, breaking a communications impasse that U.S. officials saw as increasingly dangerous amid concern that Beijing might provide military support for Russia’s war in Ukraine.

Austin, who has called China the U.S. military’s leading long-term challenge but has been forced to focus heavily on Russia this year, requested the telephone conversation with Chinese Gen. Wei Fenge after months of failed attempts to speak with Gen. Xu Qiliang, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the ruling Communist Party’s military structure.

Austin wanted to talk to Xu because, as deputy chairman of the party’s Central Military Commission, which controls the People’s Liberation Army, Xu is more influential than Wei. But Beijing insisted on sticking to protocol and having Austin talk to Wei, who is his official counterpart as defense minister but ranks below Xu in the hierarchy and has less military operational clout.

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Austin’s predecessors had typically spoken with Wei, most recently on Aug. 6, 2020, when then-Defense Secretary Mark Esper raised with him a U.S. request for greater transparency on the origins of the coronavirus and other issues.

Austin had no expectation of a major breakthrough on key issues with Wei during the call on a secure telephone link established by the Pentagon and China’s Ministry of National Defense in 2008, according to a senior defense official who was involved in the arrangement and spoke on condition of anonymity in advance of the call.

In a brief statement after the call, the Pentagon said Austin and Wei discussed U.S.-Chinese defense relations, regional security issues and “Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.” It offered no details.

China faces growing economic and geopolitical risks from the intensifying war in Ukraine, as it attempts to preserve its relationship with Russia without alienating the West.

March 14, 2022

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 U.S. leader laid out stiff consequences that Beijing would face if it provided military or economic assistance for Moscow’s 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 Wednesday.

For years, Washington has portrayed China as seeking to reshape the international order to assert its interests more forcefully and to build enough military strength to eventually supplant the U.S. as the dominant power in Asia.

The U.S.-China relationship has become more strained on multiple levels since the start of Biden’s presidency. Biden has repeatedly criticized China for military provocations against Taiwan, human rights abuses against ethnic minorities and efforts to squelch pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong. U.S. officials also have expressed concern about signs that China is vastly increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal, although it remains far smaller than America’s.

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On Wednesday’s phone call, Austin echoed Biden’s messages on the importance of managing U.S.-Chinese strategic competition, including in the nuclear, space and cyber arenas, and improving crisis communications between the global powers, the senior defense official said.

The U.S. says China has responded affirmatively to a request from Russia for military equipment to assist it in its war on Ukraine.

March 15, 2022

Austin also raised U.S. concerns about what Washington views as Chinese military provocations against Taiwan, the democratically governed island that Beijing has insisted must ultimately be united with the Chinese mainland, the official said. He also expressed U.S. concerns about Chinese activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea and raised U.S. worries about North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.

The long-strained U.S.-China relationship may have reached a new low with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At times, Beijing has sought to distance itself from the conflict but has avoided directly criticizing Moscow. At other moments, Beijing’s actions have been provocative, including amplifying unverified Russian claims that Ukraine ran chemical and biological weapons labs with U.S. support.

U.S. officials have expressed concern at 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 limits,” although it remains to be seen 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 advisor, Jake Sullivan, met in Anchorage with their Chinese counterparts, who surprised their American hosts by complaining about a litany of issues.

Since then, there has been a succession of phone and video calls between Blinken and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi but relatively few in-person meetings. Those calls have been dominated largely by issues of the day, ranging from the situation in Afghanistan, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea and Iran. Blinken has yet to visit China, and the most senior U.S. diplomat to travel to the country has been Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman.

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