U.S. Seeks to Allay Fears of Military Crisis With China

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin capped a week of marathon diplomacy with China to tamp down escalation fears.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at a press conference.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at a press conference.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks at a press conference during a NATO defense ministers' meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Feb. 17. KENZO TRIBOUILLARD/AFP via Getty Images

SIEM REAP, Cambodia—The United States and China are looking to revive long-dormant military hotlines to prevent tensions in the Indo-Pacific from spilling into a hot war, senior U.S. defense officials said Tuesday after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, sat down for more than an hour on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministerial meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The meeting between the two men, the second in just under six months, comes after China canceled calls between top military commanders in the region amid full-scale drills over Taiwan, which saw the People’s Liberation Army fire missiles over the embattled island and stage record air incursions in the days after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—at the time second in line to the U.S. presidency—paid a visit.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has historically used those as a political lever to communicate displeasure with U.S. actions and policy,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters after the 90-minute meeting, which the American side described as “sober and professional.”

SIEM REAP, Cambodia—The United States and China are looking to revive long-dormant military hotlines to prevent tensions in the Indo-Pacific from spilling into a hot war, senior U.S. defense officials said Tuesday after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his Chinese counterpart, Wei Fenghe, sat down for more than an hour on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations defense ministerial meeting in Siem Reap, Cambodia.

The meeting between the two men, the second in just under six months, comes after China canceled calls between top military commanders in the region amid full-scale drills over Taiwan, which saw the People’s Liberation Army fire missiles over the embattled island and stage record air incursions in the days after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi—at the time second in line to the U.S. presidency—paid a visit.

“The PRC [People’s Republic of China] has historically used those as a political lever to communicate displeasure with U.S. actions and policy,” a senior U.S. defense official told reporters after the 90-minute meeting, which the American side described as “sober and professional.”

The United States and China typically hold annual policy dialogues, including the so-called Defense Policy Coordination Talks; high-level talks about the U.S.-China military relationship; and safety talks under the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, which China had canceled in 2022 as tensions sparked between the two powers. China also canceled a call between its top military official for the region and U.S. Indo-Pacific Command chief Adm. John Aquilino amid the crisis that followed Pelosi’s visit, creating fears over whether Beijing would answer the phone in an actual military crisis. 

But after a marathon round of talks between U.S. and Chinese officials in the past week—including contacts between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, Vice President Kamala Harris and Xi, and Austin and Wei—U.S. officials appear confident that they can get back to the table. 

“There’s an expectation that there will be some restart of some of the mechanisms that have been frozen over the past six months,” the senior defense official said. The United States has also sought to create additional military hotlines between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, Aquilino, and their respective Chinese counterparts. 

Yet there remains skepticism on both sides that the affirmations to improve talks will stand the test of time—especially after China’s repeated incursions into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and crossing of the median line of the Taiwan Strait, even long after Pelosi’s visit. After all, those stepped-up exercises took place less than two months after Austin and Wei initially made pledges to improve lines of communication. 

“Wei made similar affirmations about the importance of military-to-military relations” in June, the senior defense official said. “Then we saw what happened subsequently. So we’ll be looking forward to seeing whether or not the PRC is going to make good on those commitments this time around.” China’s defense ministry, in a press conference after the meeting, said the discussion was “conducive” to building closer understanding and avoiding a military misjudgment between the two sides and also called for deeper military-to-military talks. 

Austin and Wei discussed Taiwan over the course of a lengthy exchange during Tuesday’s meeting in Cambodia, defense officials said, with the U.S. side affirming the so-called “One China” policy. 

The challenge in sustaining talks will be dissuading China from canceling them when it wants to demonstrate displeasure with the United States, the senior defense official said. Meanwhile, the United States has continued to raise frustrations of its own, such as Chinese intercepts of U.S. and allied aircraft in the Indo-Pacific, which Austin called “increasingly dangerous,” according to a Pentagon readout of his meeting with Wei. 

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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