US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin has yet to speak with his Chinese counterpart, a Pentagon spokesman said, as the two sides wrangle over protocol.
At a time of rising tensions, the Pentagon has reportedly sought to open lines of communication, making several attempts to set up high-level military talks that have been rebuffed by Beijing.
Asked on Wednesday whether there had been any progress, Pentagon spokesman John Kirby confirmed that, since he took office in January, Austin had not had any conversations with a counterpart in China.
“I would not say that the secretary’s waiting to engage his Chinese counterpart. There has been no discussion at his level with a counterpart in China, and when that makes the most sense, you know, we’ll pursue that, but I have no discussion to announce or to anticipate or to readout,” Kirby said.
Beijing has reportedly rejected US requests for talks between Austin and the vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, General Xu Qiliang. China is said to want the meeting to instead be held with the official Beijing sees as Austin’s counterpart – Defence Minister General Wei Fenghe, who is seen by the US as less powerful and influential than Xu.
But the US is digging in. Kirby on Wednesday again said that the US request was for Austin to meet Xu.
“I think we’ve said clearly that for the purposes of the kinds of discussions that we think are important with China it’s at the vice-chairman level [of the Chinese military],” he said.
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In May, the Financial Times reported, citing three people briefed on the situation, that Austin had made three requests to speak to Xu but that China had “refused to engage”. One US defence official told the paper that China’s military had “not been responsive” to the requests.
Days later, Global Times – a tabloid affiliated with Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily – said the Pentagon “did not follow diplomatic protocol”.
US Defence Secretary lays out vision for ‘constructive, stable’ ties with China despite concerns
Meanwhile, a US hotline with China was being left to ring out in “empty rooms”, Kurt Campbell, the White House coordinator for the Indo-Pacific region, said the same month. Campbell warned that the absence of crisis communications could lead to military conflict as tensions escalate in the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea.
Austin travelled to Southeast Asia last month, the first trip to the region by a top member of President Joe Biden’s administration. Speaking at a forum in Singapore, he said that while the US sought “constructive, stable” ties with China, it would “not flinch” if its interests were threatened.
Austin also raised concerns over Beijing’s hardened Taiwan policy, expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea, and treatment of Uygur Muslims in the Xinjiang region. The remarks angered China, with its embassy in Singapore calling them an “attack and smear” on Beijing.