Top US, Chinese military officials hold first high-level talks in over a year

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In a significant development, the highest-ranking US and Chinese military officials engaged in dialogue on Thursday, ending a year-long silence that had raised concerns within the Pentagon, CNN reported. General CQ Brown, Jr, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, initiated a video conference call with his Chinese counterpart, General Liu Zhenli of the People’s Liberation Army of China. This marked the first conversation between the two leaders since Gen Brown assumed his role as chairman, according to CNN.

During the video conference, Gen Brown emphasised the importance of collaborative efforts to responsibly manage competition, prevent miscalculations, and maintain open lines of communication, Joint Staff spokesperson Captain Jereal Dorsey said. “Gen Brown discussed the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication,” Dorsey said, adding, “Gen Brown reiterated the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.”

The hiatus in communication between the US and Chinese military leadership persisted for over a year, triggered by then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in August 2022. China responded with military drills around the island, leading to heightened tensions. The lack of dialogue became a source of concern for the Pentagon, especially in light of various incidents, including a Chinese spy balloon traversing the continental US and an increase in “coercive and risky” behaviour by Chinese pilots against US aircraft in the East and South China Seas, according to CNN.

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The restoration of communication was identified as a priority in the recent talks between President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping. President Biden, speaking on the matter, emphasised his commitment to managing the situation in a rational and manageable manner to avoid conflict. “My responsibility is to make this rational and manageable, so it doesn’t result in conflict,” Biden said at the time. “That’s what I’m all about.” US military leaders, acknowledging the significance of renewed communication, had been expressing their concerns for months. Following the meeting between Biden and Xi, the Pentagon announced active coordination with Beijing to establish communication channels.

In June, Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin had a brief encounter with then-PRC Minister of National Defence Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but no substantive exchange occurred. Since then, Shangfu has been relieved of his position, and a new defence minister has yet to be appointed. One of the key issues discussed in the conversation between Gen Brown and Gen Liu Zhenli was the opening of communication channels between the US Indo-Pacific Command and the People’s Liberation Army Eastern and Southern Theatre Commands. Admiral John Aquilino, commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, had previously stated that his standing request to speak with his Chinese counterparts had been ignored throughout his tenure.

Aquilino emphasised the ongoing efforts to engage with China but noted differing opinions on the matter. “[T]he theme here is we continue to try to engage with our partner,” Aquilino said at the time, “but there’s a different opinion there,” CNN reported.