China’s ambassador to the United States held a rare meeting at the Pentagon on Wednesday with the top U.S. defense official for Asia, the Pentagon said, in talks that followed U.S. criticism of Chinese reluctance to engage in military communications.
A brief Pentagon statement said Chinese Ambassador Xie Feng discussed defense relations and “a range of international and regional security issues” in talks with Ely Ratner, an assistant secretary of defense.
“Ratner also underscored the department’s commitment to maintaining open lines of military-to-military communication between the United States and the PRC,” Pentagon spokesperson Lieutenant Colonel Martin Meiners said, using the initialism for the People’s Republic of China.
The discussions lasted about 90 minutes, Meiners said.
In a statement, the Chinese Embassy in Washington said Xie urged the U.S. to meet China halfway to gradually return relations between the two countries and their militaries to the right track.
“A healthy and stable China-U.S. relationship is in the common interest of both countries,” Xie said in the meeting, according to the statement.
Xie also requested “the U.S. side to take action to remove obstacles, manage differences, handle Taiwan and other important and sensitive issues cautiously in accordance with the principles of the three Sino-U.S. joint communiques.”
A response, but no progress yet
Yun Sun, director of the China program at the Stimson Center, said the meeting was “quite unusual.”
“The Chinese ambassador does not often meet with U.S. senior defense officials,” Sun said. “It suggests China is at least responding to U.S. concerns, but the actual progress still requires time and negotiations.”
With U.S.-China relations at a low over national security issues, including Taiwan, U.S. export bans on advanced technologies and China’s state-led industrial policies, Washington has been trying to repair ties between the world’s two biggest economies.
U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visited China earlier this month and climate envoy John Kerry is expected to visit next week. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traveled to Beijing last month, the first trip to China by a U.S. secretary of state since 2018.
But Beijing snubbed U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s efforts to hold an in-depth meeting with his Chinese counterpart at a defense forum in Singapore last month, and military communications have stalled.
“We have regularly reached out to thicken our crisis communications and crisis management channels with Beijing and they have serially pushed us off,” Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy adviser, told a forum in London on July 10.
China has publicly cited U.S. sanctions as an obstacle to military dialog. Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu has been sanctioned since 2018 over the purchase of combat aircraft and equipment from Russia’s main arms exporter, Rosoboronexport.
But Kahl said in London that China appeared to be concerned that Washington was going to use crisis management channels “so we can have more crises.”
“When we have these conversations with them, they’re like: ‘If you don’t want crises, there’s a simple answer … Get out. Like, you’re not a Pacific power,” Kahl said, adding that was a strange thing to hear as someone from the Pacific coast state of California.
Sun said Beijing was unlikely to accept a defense minister-level meeting with Austin unless Washington addresses the sanction on Li.
“Some have argued that the Li-Austin meeting would be a prerequisite for working-level mil-to-mil to resume. It doesn’t have to be, but it makes sense given the protocol,” Sun said.