It looks like U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has been ghosted by his Chinese counterpart, General Xu Qiliang, the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission and a member of the Politboro of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Financial Times on Friday reported that “three people briefed on the impasse” had said that Austin has tried on three occasions to contact Xu, “but China has refused to engage.”
As evidenced by the acrimonious talks held in Alaska between Biden officials and CCP leaders two months ago, the US/Chinese relationship, while never smooth, has become increasingly strained in recent months.
Austin would like to speak with Xu about “the rising tensions in the Indopacific,” specifically Chinese aggression in Taiwan and their military activity in the South China Sea, according to The Financial Times.
“The two militaries are increasingly coming into closer contact, particularly in the South China Sea as the Chinese navy and air force conduct aggressive activity near Taiwan,” the newspaper reported.
In March, a U.S. defense official told The Financial Times that “President Xi Jinping was flirting with trying to seize Taiwan.” Within hours, “China flew a record number of fighters and bombers into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone.”
In late January, The Financial Times reported that Chinese military aircraft had conducted “simulated missile attacks on the USS Theodore Roosevelt aircraft carrier near Taiwan.”
Additionally, the U.S. is concerned about the ongoing territorial dispute between Japan and China over a small group of uninhabited islands northeast of Taiwan. The islands are currently controlled by Japan, where they are known the Senkaku Islands. In China, they are called the Diaoyu islands.
These islands are important “because they are close to important shipping lanes, offer rich fishing grounds and lie near potential oil and gas reserves” and they are located “in a strategically significant position,” according to the BBC.
A U.S. defense official who wished to remain anonymous told Reuters, “The military relationship is strained, no question about that. It’s hard to know how much this is reflective of that strain as much as it is just Chinese intransigence.”
“But we certainly want to have a dialogue. We just want to make sure we have a dialogue at the proper level,” the official added.
Reuters spoke to a second U.S. official who explained there was disagreement with the Biden administer over whom Austin should try to contact — Xu or Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.
“Xu is seen as having more power and influence with Chinese President Xi Jinping,” Reuters reported.
Both Austin and Wei had planned to attend the Shangri-La defense forum, scheduled to take place in Singapore next month, however, the gathering was canceled last week due to COVID-19, The Financial Times reported.
A defense official told The Financial Times that Austin prefers to meet with Xu.
“We believe the appropriate counterpart is the vice-chair of the Central Military Commission,” the official said.
The Financial Times reported that “[Former Defense Secretary] Jim Mattis met Xu in Beijing in 2018. … But China almost always offers up its defense minister instead. This has increasingly frustrated the US because he has little power in the Chinese system and does not serve on the 25-member politburo that rules China.”
“The White House is split over how Austin should handle the situation. Some National Security Council officials are opposed to Austin dealing with Wei. Another group are less resistant, but want Austin to use any meeting or call to tell Wei that he would only hold talks with the CMC vice-chair,” the newspaper reported.
Heino Klinck, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for East Asia told The Financial Times that, due to the structural differences between the U.S. and Chinese militaries, it has always been difficult to agree on protocol for high-level meetings.
“Given the situation with Taiwan and other issues such as the East China Sea and South China Sea, as well as attempted Chinese coercion of our key allies and partners such as Australia, it is important to have clear communication,” Klinck told the newspaper. “We need to be conveying to the Chinese what our own red lines are because they convey theirs.”
China’s reluctance to engage with the U.S. should come as no surprise after the complete breakdown of the diplomatic talks in Alaska, where it was made immediately and abundantly clear that Chinese Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi had neither fear nor respect for the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The photographs below show that the U.S./Chinese relationship had been quite different under the Trump Administration.
the same Yang Jiechi when facing Pompeo pic.twitter.com/fToDsK0UIY
— KW😷 (@VamosNadalClay) March 20, 2021
Respect for the interlocutor, No one is looked down upon, the basics of diplomacy in fact. pic.twitter.com/UY7KNRuB98
— HΛldrix²™ (@haldrix2) March 21, 2021
With President Joe Biden in the White House, American officials have never been as weak as they are now against China, which is unsettling enough. This kind of behavior shows the Chinese know it — which is actually frightening.
Maybe Austin ought to drop his war against extremism “in the ranks” and his concern over the “existential” threat to national security from climate change, and focus on America’s real enemies.
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