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China won’t return Biden SECDEF’s calls, reports say

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaks with the UK Secretary of State for Defense Ben Wallace, from the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Jan. 23, 2021. (Lisa Ferdinando/DoD)
May 24, 2021

U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has been trying to reach China’s top general to set up bilateral talks, but so far Austin’s calls are going unreturned, according to U.S. defense officials who spoke with Reuters on Friday.

“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,” a U.S. defense official told Reuters. “But we certainly want to have a dialogue. We just want to make sure we have a dialogue at the proper level.”

The Financial Times reported Austin has already made three requests to meet with Xu Qiliang, the vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, but China has refused to engage.

“The Chinese military has not been responsive,” a U.S. defense official told the Financial Times regarding Austin’s attempt to reach Xu.

The U.S. and China have seen strains on a number of issues, ranging from Hong Kong and Taiwan’s autonomy to human rights abuses in Xinjiang, to China’s expanding military presence throughout the South China Sea. In recent weeks, President Joe Biden’s administration has warned China against encroaching on Taiwan. Chinese warships have also claimed to expel U.S. warships sailing through the disputed South China Sea.

While Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other Biden officials met with their Chinese counterparts in Alaska in March, there have been no high-level talks between Chinese military leaders and the new military leadership under the Biden administration. The Alaska talks also saw heated arguments between the two delegations and have not appeared to yield any new diplomatic breakthroughs with China.

Another U.S. official who spoke with Reuters said there has been some debate within the Biden administration about whether Austin should even speak altogether with Xu, or Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.

A meeting in Singapore of top defense officials from the surrounding region had been planned for later this month. The meeting would have presented Austin an opportunity to meet with Wei, but the event has since been canceled due to COVID-19 pandemic concerns.

A meeting with Xu could also have significant value as he has reportedly been garnering more influence with Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

The Financial Times reported that Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, like Austin, has also struggled to get in contact with his Chinese counterpart since they last spoke in January, before Biden took office.