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"I want to tell you that your fact sheet on the [Missile Technology Control Regime] is very well done and useful for me when I have to speak on MTCR issues."

– Amb. Thomas Hajnoczi
Chair, MTCR
May 19, 2021
China, U.S. Restore Military Communications
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March 2024
By Shizuka Kuramitsu

China and the United States resumed military-to-military contacts with a series of recent meetings, delivering on a decision by their leaders at a November 2023 summit.

Michael S. Chase (C, L), U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Taiwan and Mongolia, hosts Chinese delegation led by Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao (C, R), deputy director of the Chinese Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation for meetings at the Pentagon on Jan. 9. (U.S. Department of Defense photo by Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Alexander Kubitza)Two days of meetings, called the China-U.S. defense policy coordination talks, took place Jan. 8-9 at the Pentagon. It was the first formal in-person encounter between the two militaries since January 2020.

The meetings were co-chaired by Michael Chase, U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for China, Taiwan, and Mongolia, and Maj. Gen. Song Yanchao, Chinese deputy director of the Central Military Commission Office for International Military Cooperation.

The two sides discussed Chinese-U.S. defense relations and regional and global security issues, including Ukraine, North Korea, and the South China Sea, according to the U.S. Defense Department, which added that it “will continue to engage in active discussions with [Chinese] counterparts about future engagements between defense and military officials at multiple levels.”

In a Jan. 10 news release, the Chinese Defense Ministry said that its delegation expressed a willingness at the meeting “to develop a sound and stable military-to-military relationship with the U.S. side on the basis of equality and respect and work together.”

Meanwhile, on Dec. 21, two weeks before the Pentagon meeting, China and the United States conducted a video teleconference involving teams led by U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Air Force Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. and Chinese Gen. Liu Zhenli, the chief of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Joint Staff Department.

The two sides discussed a number of global regional security issues, the U.S. Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said afterward. It also reported that the U.S. delegation reiterated “the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication” and “the importance of the [PLA] engaging in substantive dialogue to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.”

The Chinese delegation also shared a similar viewpoint, that “the two sides exchanged candid and in-depth views on implementing the important military-related consensus reached between the two heads of state in San Francisco and on other issues of common interest,” Senior Col. Wu Qian, spokesperson for the Chinese Defense Ministry, told a press conference on Dec. 28.

“The video call yielded positive and constructive outcomes,” Wu said. “Going forward, we expect the U.S. side to work with us in the same direction and take concrete actions on the basis of equality and respect to promote the sound and steady development of [the] China-U.S. military-to-military relationship.”

Bilateral military-to-military contacts broke down after U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in 2022. Many analysts increasingly have been concerned that Beijing’s and Washington’s inability to communicate directly courts danger if a crisis erupts over Taiwan or some other major flashpoint.

But even after the recent meetings, tensions and differences between China and the United States remain evident. For example, Wu complained that the United States “has been intensifying its military deployment in the Asia-Pacific, which is full of Cold War mentality.”

“We urge the [United States] to abandon the outdated security vision and zero-sum Cold War mentality, view China and China’s military development in an objective and rational light, instead of being obsessed with the pursuit for hegemony,” Wu said.

Similarly, a Chinese Defense Ministry news release on Jan. 10 urged the U.S. side “to take seriously China’s concerns and do more things that contribute to the growth of the mil-mil relationship.”

Both sides seem determined to maintain the restored lines of communication. On Jan. 25, Wu confirmed that, “[w]ith the concerted efforts of the two sides, mil-to-mil dialogues and consultations have been steadily resumed on the basis of equality and respect. Currently, the Chinese military and the U.S. military are maintaining communication and coordination on exchange programs.”

Following the November summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Joe Biden and the two sets of military-to-military meetings in December and January, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met in Bangkok on Jan. 26-27.

Given that 2024 marks the 45th anniversary of bilateral diplomatic relations, China said that the two countries “should work together toward mutual respect, peaceful coexistence, and win-win cooperation, finding the way for China and the United States to get along with each other,” according to the Chinese Embassy in Washington.

The U.S. Embassy in Beijing reported that, in his meeting with Wang, Sullivan “stressed that although the United States and China are in competition, both countries need to prevent it from veering into conflict or confrontation.”

Both sides also “recognized recent progress in resuming military-to-military communication…noted the importance of maintaining these channels...[and] discussed next steps on a range of areas of cooperation [including on] holding a U.S.-China dialogue on [artificial intelligence] in the spring,” the embassy said.

It added that the “two sides held candid, substantive and constructive discussions on global and regional issues, including those related to Russia’s war against Ukraine, the Middle East, [North Korea], the South China Sea, and Burma” and that Sullivan “underscored the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

Further, the U.S. embassy said that the two sides “committed to maintain this strategic channel of communication and to pursue additional high-level diplomacy and consultations in key areas.”

China and the United States also held long-awaited talks on nuclear arms control on Nov. 6 in Washington D.C., the first such meeting in nearly five years.

Speaking to the Nuclear Weapons and Arms Control Working Group on Feb. 8, Mallory Stewart, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for arms control, deterrence, and stability who led the U.S. delegation to the arms control talks, admitted that “we didn’t see much substantive progress from this first engagement” with China’s representative Sun Xiaobo.

“But the idea that we would make the substantive conversation from the very first engagement that we have not had for many years on our arms control, strategic stability and risk reduction is not realistic,” she said. (See ACT, December 2023.)

“I think the key is to encourage them to appreciate why we need to share our questions and they need to share their questions, and we work together to get to a place where we address each other’s specific understandings,” added Stewart.