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China issues demands to US in first call with SECDEF Austin

Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III briefs the media on Afghanistan, the Pentagon, Washington, D.C., Aug. 18, 2021. (DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando)
April 20, 2022

During the first official phone call between U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, the Chinese official demanded the U.S. “stop conducting military provocations at sea.”

The Chinese side has published a readout of the conversation between Austin and Wei, in which Wei asserted that Taiwan is an “inalienable” part of China’s territory and that is a fact that cannot be changed. Wei said if issues with respect to Taiwan are not handled properly, it will undermine the working relationship between the U.S. and China and China will “resolutely safeguard national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity.”

“China requires the U.S. to stop conducting military provocations at sea,” the Chinese side said. “And not to use the Ukraine issue to smear, frame or threaten China.”

Austin and Wei spoke by phone for the first time on Wednesday, more than a year after Austin assumed his current position as defense secretary. According to the Associated Press, Austin had tried for months to set up a call with Gen. Xu Qiliang — the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) military structure — but the Chinese side insisted he speak instead with Wei.

China has repeatedly criticized recent U.S. interactions with Taiwan and has even conducted overt shows of military force in reaction to U.S. officials visiting the island.

Since 1972, the U.S. has recognized China and Taiwan as a single country, through the so-called “One-China Principle,” but has maintained strategic ambiguity in its stance towards Taiwan, continuing to interact with Taiwanese officials and provide defensive equipment to the island through the Taiwan Relations Act.

According to the Chinese readout, Austin and Wei also discussed maritime and air security issues and “the situation in Ukraine.” China has largely avoided describing the ongoing conflict in Ukraine as a Russian invasion of the country.

According to the Associated Press, Austin had sought a call with Chinese military leaders amid concerns China may provide military assistance to Russia during its invasion of Ukraine. Austin reportedly sought a call with Gen. Xu, who serves as deputy chairman of the CCP’s Central Military Commission oversees, which controls the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In his role, Xu is considered more influential than Wei. China insisted Austin speak with Wei, who is technically his counterpart.

Austin reportedly intended for the Wednesday call with Wei to serve as something of a follow-up to a March 18 call between President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping. The White House has said that during the March call, Biden “described the implications and consequences if China provides material support to Russia.”

According to the Chinese readout of Austin and Wei’s Wednesday call, Austin said the US is willing to “promote the implementation of the important consensus reached by the two heads of state in the phone conversation.” The Chinese readout did not provide more specific details about this consensus.

The U.S. Department of Defense had not provided its own readout of the call between Austin and Wei at the time of this publication.