US and Chinese military officials hold first talks since 2021

US and Chinese military officials hold first talks since 2021

Stay informed with free updatesSimply sign up to the US-China relations myFT Digest — delivered directly to your inbox.US and Chinese military officials have held their first formal talks in more than two years as Washington and Beijing follow through on an agreement struck by President Joe Biden and his counterpart Xi Jinping in November.The Pentagon said senior defence officials held two days of discussions this week in what were the first “Defence Policy Coordination Talks” since the previously annual engagement last occurred in 2021.Michael Chase, deputy assistant secretary of defence for China policy, led the talks with Major General Song Yanchao, deputy director of China’s Central Military Commission’s office for international military co-operation.The Pentagon said Chase stressed the importance of maintaining military-to-military communications “to prevent competition from veering into conflict”. He also raised concerns about China harassing Philippine vessels in the South China Sea, an issue that has become increasingly contentious.The talks on Monday and Tuesday came just days before Taiwan holds a presidential election. The US is watching to see how the People’s Liberation Army responds to the outcome of the poll in Taiwan, over which Beijing claims sovereignty.In 2022, China refused to resume the talks as a protest move after then US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan. Xi agreed to restart the DPCT and another channel called the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement when he held a summit with Biden in November in an effort to stabilise ties.The US had stressed the need for talks, particularly as concerns mounted about how Chinese fighter jets were engaging with US and allied aircraft flying surveillance missions over the South China Sea.Ahead of the Biden-Xi summit in San Francisco, the Pentagon said Chinese fighters had conducted several hundred “risky and coercive” aerial intercepts against aircraft flown by the US and its allies over the previous two years.China has criticised the US for flying surveillance missions off its coast, but the Pentagon rejects this suggestion and stresses that its spy planes are flying legally in international airspace.  In one positive sign, Admiral John Aquilino, head of US Indo-Pacific command, last month said China appeared to have curtailed the dangerous aerial manoeuvres since the summit. Speaking in Tokyo, he said it would be “an incredible positive outcome” if that situation continued to hold. A spokesperson for Indo-Pacific command said China had not engaged in any coercive or risky aerial behaviour in the weeks since Aquilino spoke in Tokyo.Ahead of the DPCT, which were held in Washington, a US defence official said the resumption was “important” but that the Pentagon was “clear eyed” about the challenges. The talks are partly designed to decide a schedule of engagements between the militaries for the rest of this year. “The US goal is to have more sustained engagement with the People’s Liberation Army to reduce the risk of accident, avoid misperceptions, and strengthen crisis communications,” said Bonnie Glaser, a China expert at the German Marshall Fund.In a statement on Wednesday, China’s defence ministry said it had “expressed that China is willing to develop a sound and stable military-to-military relationship” with Washington at the DPCT.But the statement also called on the US to “take seriously China’s concerns”, adding that “China will not make any concession or compromise on the Taiwan question” and demanded the US stop arming Taiwan and “reduce military presence and provocation in the South China Sea”.RecommendedUS defence secretary Lloyd Austin shook hands with his then Chinese counterpart Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La Dialogue defence forum in Singapore in May last year. But China refused to set up an actual meeting because the US maintained sanctions on the general. In October, Xi removed Li in connection with a corruption investigation and the post remained open until the appointment of Dong Jun, former head of the Chinese navy, in December. Dong’s appointment paves the way for a possible meeting with Austin this year. In December, General Charles Brown, chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, held his first call with General Liu Zhenli, his Chinese counterpart, in another sign of improved communication between the two militaries.Additional reporting by Wenjie Ding in Beijing

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