China-US high-level military talk shows willingness to stabilize ties, manage risks despite persisting uncertainty
Published: Dec 22, 2023 10:20 PM
China US Photo:VCG

China US Photo:VCG

Senior military officials from China and the US held a virtual meeting on Thursday night, marking the first high-level military dialogue for more than a year. According to readouts from both sides, senior officers stressed the importance of exchanges and dialogue during the video call, but the Chinese side also stressed that the premise of healthy, stable and sustainable military ties is for the US to "genuinely respect China's core interests and major concerns." 

Liu Zhenli, a Central Military Commission (CMC) member and the chief of the CMC's Joint Staff Department, on Thursday held a video teleconference with General Charles Q. Brown,  Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the US, at the latter's request, China's Ministry of National Defense said in a press release on the day.

The key to developing healthy, stable and sustainable military relations is for the US to have the right perception of China, with the premise that the US should genuinely respect China's core interests and major concerns, Liu said, noting that the key should be promoting pragmatic cooperation and boosting mutual understanding.

The dialogue came at a time when the US approved arms sales to the island of Taiwan while emboldening the Philippines to continue challenging China's sovereignty over the Ren'ai Reef in the South China Sea. 

Liu stressed that the Taiwan question is a purely internal affair of China that does not allow any external interference, and the Chinese military will resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The US should earnestly respect China's territorial sovereignty and maritime rights in the South China Sea, be prudent in its words and deeds, and take concrete actions to safeguard regional peace and stability as well as the overall situation in China-US relations, Liu told Brown.

According to the AP, Brown's spokesman Navy Capt. Jereal Dorsey said in a statement that the two officers "discussed the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication." 

Zhuo Hua, an international affairs expert at the School of International Relations and Diplomacy of Beijing Foreign Studies University, viewed the senior-level conversation as "a good start for the resumption of other channels between the two militaries," saying it was especially significant that the two sides discussed defense policy and security issues, preventing miscalculation and managing conflicts.

The working meeting of two defense authorities, including the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement meetings, and telephone conversations between theatre commanders are all expected to resume in an orderly manner, Zhuo said.

Xin Qiang, deputy director of the Center for American Studies at Fudan University, told the Global Times on Friday that the video teleconference signaled that both Beijing and Washington are willing to stabilize ties and manage risks, and avoid direct conflict and war. 

China and the US have been strengthening dialogue and contacts in the political, economic, trade and military fields since July, while bilateral relations have shown a momentum of easing from tensions. Some analysts said both sides should take the opportunity to further stabilize relations.

The detente between China and the US will also have an impact on other countries, especially Washington's vanguards that are provoking China, Xin said, "This will prompt them to consider what the benefit is of confronting China when the US itself has started to resume communication with China."

Guidance from the top

The meeting between the two heads of state of China and the US in San Francisco resulted in an important consensus on the resumption of exchanges and communication between the two countries' militaries, which should carry out communication and cooperation based on equality and respect, so as to jointly stabilize and improve bilateral ties, said Liu.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin on Friday said that China hopes the US side will work with China to implement the important consensus reached during the San Francisco meeting between the two heads of state on resuming communication and exchanges between the two militaries and carry out relevant exchanges and cooperation on the basis of equality and respect.

Li Haidong, a professor at the China Foreign Affairs University, told the Global Times that the latest conversation between Chinese and US officers is the concrete results and progress following the Xi-Biden summit in San Francisco.

The year-end video teleconference came after the two heads of state's summit in November, when they agreed to resume military communication channels which were halted after then House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi provocatively visited China's Taiwan region and met with its secessionist leader in August 2022.

According to the Pentagon, the last talks between US and Chinese counterparts at this level occurred in July 2022.  

The Pentagon also said that senior US defense officials described the conversation as an "important step."

Uncertainty remains 

Nevertheless, experts mentioned that even though there were signs of exchanges and detente between the two militaries, the destabilizing factors that led to the freeze in China-US military relations have not been significantly reduced, as the US has not changed its strategic competition with China, and has emboldened allies or made military provocations against China itself, and its domestic partisan rivalry often spills over into its foreign policy. They added that the biggest variable in the normal development of China-US military relations is the Taiwan question, which was the direct trigger for the latest difficulties in communication.

In the latest press release on the conversation, the Pentagon placed the blame on China for the previous lack of communication between the two militaries, noting that Beijing has "consistently denied or ignored US requests for defense engagements at multiple levels." The Pentagon also noted "increasingly provocative and risky behavior on the part of China's military." 

Ironically, according to a Bloomberg report on Thursday, US Assistant Air Force Secretary Andrew Hunter said that the US Air Force "continues to explore all options to prioritize and expedite" sales of F-16 fighter jets to Taiwan island, aiming to deliver 66 new aircraft by the end of 2026.

On December 15, the Pentagon said it approved a $300 million military sale of equipment "to help maintain Taiwan's tactical information systems," according to a Reuters report. 

The meeting between the heads of state of China and the US was effective, but in terms of concrete implementation, it still depends on if the US can abandon its hegemonic mentality, Li said, "We should also be wary of the inconsistency between words and deeds in the US policy toward China."

It will never be acceptable for the Chinese side if the US tries to turn the reopened channel of military exchanges into a tool to put pressure on China, Li said. 

In a statement released by the Chinese Ministry of Defense, Liu Zhenli mentioned the word "respect" three times.

The resumption of high-level dialogue between the two militaries has not come easily, but the communication channels will do little to eliminate the risk of military conflict under the US framework of "strategic competition." It is still necessary for the US side to change its wrong perception of China, make good use of the communication platform with constructive thinking, and take concrete actions to safeguard the overall stable China-US relations and regional peace, Zhuo said. 

China-US relations are at a crucial turning point, with exchanges increasing, but uncertainties also remain high, said Xin, noting that the upcoming regional elections in Taiwan, the US presidential elections, China hawks in the Congress, and disputes in the South China Sea are all tests for the relationship.

The US should not take the restored military communication channels as a sign that there are "no big problems" and continue creating chaos around China or further go against Beijing, as the thaw is still fragile, Xin said.