Top China, U.S. military leaders hold first meeting in more than a year

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U.S. Air Force F16 fighter jets fly in formation during U.S.-Philippines joint air force exercises dubbed Cope Thunder at Clark Air Base on May 09, 2023 in Mabalacat, Pampanga province, Philippines.

Ezra Acayan | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Charles Brown, spoke virtually with his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Liu Zhenli, Thursday in the first direct high-level engagement between the two militaries in more than a year.

This meeting comes just after President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping agreed to resume high-level military communication in their bilateral talks on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation leaders’ summit in San Francisco last month.

“The meeting between General Brown and General Liu is indicative of both sides’ desire to sustain more stable engagement in the months ahead, a goal that senior officials in both countries have repeatedly reiterated in the wake of the Biden-Xi meeting,” Eurasia Group’s China analysts wrote in a client note.

Beijing stopped high level military communication after the former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022 as ties between the world’s two biggest economies soured.

Beijing had rebuffed U.S. efforts to resume communication, notably at a regional defense summit in Singapore earlier this year.

The resumption of direct talks comes at a time Beijing and Manila are escalating their face-off in the South China Sea, defending their territorial claims in the crucial waterway.

Other Southeast Asian countries such as Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam also claim parts of the South China Sea. Many countries have deepened security ties with the U.S. partly to counter China’s aggression in the region.

“The key to developing a healthy, stable, and sustainable military-to-military relationship is … a correct understanding of China,” China’s Defense Ministry said in a readout of the Brown-Liu virtual call.

“The United States should earnestly respect China’s core interests and major concerns, and focus on promoting pragmatic cooperation and enhancing mutual understanding.”

The Chinese readout mentioned the South China Sea, urging the U.S. to respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the waterway while reiterating Taiwan is “purely China’s internal affairs.”

China has consistently maintained its claim over self-governed Taiwan and the majority of the South China Sea. The Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled in 2016 that China’s expansive claims in the South China Sea have no basis in international law.

“Gen. Brown discussed the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication,” according to a U.S. Defense Department readout.

“Gen. Brown reiterated the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings,” the U.S. Defense Department added.

The U.S. has documented more than 180 coercive and risky air intercepts against its aircraft in the region between 2021 and 2023, according to its latest China Military Power Report.

The U.S. readout suggests that lower level military engagement between the two countries may soon resume. This includes their bilateral Defense Policy Coordination Talks, Military Maritime Consultative Agreement talks, and opening lines of communication between the leaders of the respective military commands in the South China Sea and the broader Pacific.

“It is unlikely that military-to-military engagement will lead the People’s Liberation Army to significantly scale back operations such as intentional intercepts of US aircraft in the South China Sea, activities that are central to China’s effort to push back US and allied military operations in the region,” Eurasia Group analysts said.

“Regular military diplomacy does, however, offer an avenue for addressing other security concerns, resolving misunderstandings, deescalating potential crises, and reducing the risk of kinetic conflict,” they added.

— CNBC’s Evelyn Cheng contributed to this story.


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