China, US defence officials hold talks on Pentagon report

  • No word from the Chinese side, which could mean higher-level meeting in the offing, observer says
  • Discussion meant to build understanding and maintain open channels of communication, US says

Chinese and American defence officials have held talks to discuss a Pentagon report highlighting China’s growing nuclear arsenal, in a sign that the two militaries are stepping up engagement.

The working-level talks come amid preparations for a meeting between top military officials from both countries amid rising tensions over Taiwan and an arms race for the edge in hypersonic weapons.

In a short statement dated Thursday, the US Defence Department said representatives from the Office of the Secretary of defence and the Joint Staff met representatives from China’s Central Military Commission’s Office for International Military Cooperation on Tuesday.

The focus of the talks was the Pentagon’s annual report on China’s military power, released last month.

“The two sides held a constructive discussion to build understanding and maintain open channels of communication between the Department of Defence and the People’s Liberation Army per the 2014 Memorandum of Understanding on Notification of Major Military Activities Confidence Building Measure Mechanism,” the statement said.

According to the Pentagon report, the estimated number of “deliverable nuclear warheads” in China’s arsenal has ballooned from the low 200s last year, and could reach 700 warheads by 2027 and then potentially 1,000 by 2030.

China did not release a statement on the working-level talks in what could be a sign of tensions between the two sides, according to some analysts.

Song Zhongping, a former PLA instructor, said China might not have released a statement if the US had raised many demands that Beijing would not agree to.

“Military meetings involving this kind of level of officials are rare given the tensions in China-US relations, but they are necessary,” Song said.

“Military meetings set a basis for diplomat-level meetings, allowing confirmation of red lines … and to avoid misjudgments and conflicts on the ground.”

The South China Morning Post reported on Thursday that the two militaries were discussing the possibility of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin having talks with CMC vice-chairman Xu Qiliang and Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe.

The format and details of the dialogue have yet to be finalised, but a source said the talks could take place in January via a video or phone call.

Lu Xiang, a research fellow specialising in US studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said he believed the Chinese side did not say anything about the meeting because the talks were not of a high level.

“This could signal that the two sides are paving way for higher-level meetings,” Lu said.

“This kind of meeting does help with communication, as there have been a lot of activities in the Taiwan Strait recently, and it’s easier for both sides to misjudge intentions and actions.”

The presidents of the two countries also had a virtual summit last month. In the 3½-hour meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping and US leader Joe Biden agreed to continue discussions on a range of issues.

Authors: Teddy Ng, Kinling Lo, SCMP

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