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Chinese, US senior defense officials' talks encouraging, experts say

By ZHANG ZHIHAO | CHINA DAILY | Updated: 2022-04-22 07:17


Chinese experts said it is encouraging to see senior military officials from China and the United States maintaining dialogue despite tensions between the two nations, but China hopes the US can take more concrete actions that are conducive to putting the two nations' ties on the right track.

On Wednesday, State Councilor and Minister of National Defense General Wei Fenghe spoke with US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in a telephone call proposed by the US. The dialogue followed a videoconference between President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden on March 18.

It was the first time the two military officials have spoken to each other since Austin took office over a year ago, and it has been nearly 21 months since a Chinese defense minister last talked with his US counterpart.

During the conversation, Wei warned that if the Taiwan question is handled poorly, it will have a seismic impact on China-US relations, according to a statement released by the Ministry of National Defense late on Wednesday.

China wishes to build healthy and stable ties with the US, but it will also resolutely safeguard China's national interests and dignity, Wei said, adding that the US should not underestimate China's determination and capability.

Austin said the US upholds the one-China principle, and both sides should responsibly manage competition and risk, according to the statement.

A Chinese military expert who requested anonymity said that China "drew a red line" by solemnly warning the US not to undermine China's sovereignty by provoking China on the Taiwan question, which is a matter of China's core interests.

"The Taiwan question is a critical issue in China-US relations that is nonnegotiable and has no room for misinterpretation. But if the US keeps maintaining official interactions with the island, whether it is through arms sales or high-level official visits, China will be compelled to respond," the expert said.

The US military routinely sends warships through the Taiwan Straits, almost on a monthly basis, under the pretense of so-called "freedom of navigation", according to the South China Sea Strategic Situation Probing Initiative, a Beijing-based think tank.

In early April, the US approved a $95 million weapons sale to support Taiwan's Patriot Air Defense System, making it the third such arms deal by the Biden administration. Last week, six US legislators visited the island, prompting a strong protest from China.

During the phone call, Wei also said the two militaries should enhance mutual trust, promote dialogue, facilitate practical cooperation and ensure that the two countries' military-to-military relations can develop in a normal and stable manner.

The two sides also exchanged opinions on maritime and airspace security and the situation in Ukraine. China has urged the US to stop its military provocation in China's surrounding waters, and refrain from using the Ukraine issue to smear, frame, threaten or coerce China, he said.

Austin said the US is willing to promote and implement the important consensus reached by the heads of state of both countries, and enhance military cooperation and dialogue with China, according to the statement.

Yuan Zheng, deputy director of the Institute of American Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said Sino-US relations are tense due to the frequent US military operations around Taiwan and in the South China Sea, as well as instigating its allies to target China.

Given the complexity of the situation, having this high-level dialogue between the two militaries could reduce the likelihood of strategic misunderstanding and miscalculation, which is beneficial to regional and global stability, Yuan said.

The Chinese military expert who requested anonymity said the latest dialogue represents a positive step toward fulfilling the consensus reached by the heads of state of both countries.

The exchange shows the world that China and the US do not want a military conflict, the expert said. "It is never too late to talk about and work on issues of mutual concerns. Just having a channel of communication open is already a good thing in its own right."

Yuan said the US will likely continue its competition with China and keep meddling in China's domestic affairs. "We hope the US can honor their words and take concrete actions to improve Sino-US relations," he said.

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