Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has not spoken with China’s top military officials since taking office in January — despite the Pentagon’s best efforts, according to a new report.
“The military relationship is strained, no question about that. It’s hard to know how much this is reflective of that strain as much as it is just Chinese intransigence,” one US defense official told Reuters on Friday. “But we certainly want to have a dialogue. We just want to make sure we have a dialogue at the proper level.”
A second official told Reuters that the Biden administration has not been able to determine whether Austin should reach out to Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe or Beijing’s Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Xu Qiliang. The latter is said to have more influence with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Austin may have had the chance to speak with Wei during next month’s scheduled Shangri-La Dialogue Asian security summit in Singapore, but the event was canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Relations between Washington and Beijing are at a low point due to distrust over the origins of the pandemic as well as Chinese saber-rattling toward Taiwan, Beijing’s ambitions in the South China Sea, and its treatment of the Uighur Muslims in the northwestern province of Xinjiang.
Earlier this week, China issued a warning for the US not to “stir up trouble” after the guided-missile destroyer USS Curtis Wilbur passed through the Taiwan Strait on Wednesday, and entered waters surrounding the Paracel island group that Beijing claims as its territory on Thursday.
Along with building the world’s largest navy and coast guard by numbers of vessels, China has fortified its island holdings in the strategically vital South China Sea and created new island outposts by piling sand cement on coral reefs and topping them with airstrips and other infrastructure.
It has also ignored rival territorial claims by its smaller neighbors, including the Philippines and Vietnam, as well as an international arbitral ruling that declared most of China’s claims in the South China Sea invalid.
In response, the US Navy regularly conducts what it calls freedom of navigation operations to assert its right to sail in international waters.
A statement from the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s Southern Theater Thursday accused the U.S. of increasing the risk of “misunderstandings, misjudgments, and accidents at sea” and alleged the Wilbur’s maneuvers were “unprofessional and irresponsible.”
In an unusually long and pointed response, the US Navy’s 7th Fleet called the Chinese claims “false” and added that Beijing asserts its “excessive and illegitimate maritime claims at the expense of the Southeast Asian neighbors in the South China Sea.”
“USS Curtis Wilbur was not ‘expelled’ from any nation’s territory,” the 7th Fleet said. “USS Curtis Wilbur conducted this FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in accordance with international law and then continued on to conduct normal operations in international waters.”
With Post wires