No high-level military calls between the U.S. and China since Biden took office in January

Several Western media outlets reported Friday (May 21) that top U.S. and Chinese military officials have not had any calls since the Biden administration took office in January. The latest crisis communication between military officials of the two countries occurred late last year.

The Financial Times first reported that U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had invited three times to speak with Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Communist Party’s military commission, a member of the Politburo and the Communist Party’s highest-ranking military officer.

The Biden administration believes that Austin’s dialogue with Xu Qiliang is important because of rising tensions in the Indian Ocean region. But Chinese officials have refused to participate, according to three people with knowledge of the impasse.

Chinese and U.S. forces are increasingly in close proximity, particularly in the South China Sea region, where the Chinese Communist Navy and Air Force are conducting aggressive activities near Taiwan. Taiwan has become a recognized danger zone.

U.S. officials have long sought to maintain open lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts so that they can mitigate potential conflicts or deal with any surprises.

However, in addition to the Chinese side not answering the U.S. defense secretary’s invitation to speak, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has not been able to talk with his Chinese counterpart since early January.

A U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters, “There’s no question that the military relationship is tense. It’s hard to know to what extent the Chinese refusal to talk reflects that tension.”

“We certainly want to have a dialogue. We want to make sure there’s a counterpart dialogue.” The official, who asked not to be named, added.

On the other hand, the U.S. side argued that the Chinese official who should have been the counterpart to the U.S. defense chief was Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission, rather than Defense Minister Wei Fenghe, who was always sent out by the Chinese side to meet him.

Then-U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis met with Xu Qiliang when he visited China in 2018 under then-President Donald Trump.

The U.S. defense secretary ranks fourth in the Cabinet. The Communist Party’s defense chief, on the other hand, does not have much power in the Communist Party system and is not ranked in the 25-member Politburo, the Communist Party’s highest power body; the vice chairman of the Central Military Commission is higher in the Communist Party’s political and military system than the defense chief.

There is reportedly a debate within the Biden administration over whether Austin should speak with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe or Xu Qiliang, vice chairman of the Central Military Commission.

Some officials oppose Austin consulting with Wei Fenghe; others, while less opposed, want Austin to tell Wei explicitly through meetings or phone calls that he will only speak with the vice chairman of the Communist Party’s military commission.

Austin had planned to travel to Singapore in June for the Shangri-La Security Dialogue, a forum Wei Fenghe is also expected to attend. It is the largest security forum in the Indo-Pacific region, attracting senior government officials and senior defense experts from the region and around the world each year.

The Dialogue organizers announced this week that they were canceling the event due to concerns about the outbreak of the Chinese Communist virus (New Coronavirus, COVID-19). This means the likelihood of a first face-to-face meeting between the Chinese and U.S. defense chiefs in Singapore has been reduced to zero.

The interviewed U.S. Defense Department official confirmed that the U.S. side had discussed a meeting between Austin and Wei Fenghe in Singapore.

The U.S. side has not agreed to resume the past — lengthy but unresolved — high-level dialogue mechanism after the top U.S. and Chinese diplomatic officials had a public diplomatic spat in Alaska in March.

U.S. officials said Friday they don’t want to meet for the sake of meeting; but expect to have a channel of communication with the Chinese side that remains open.