China, US set for meeting of top military officials amid Taiwan tensions

  • Telephone call in January being considered after consensus was reached during Xi-Biden summit on setting up discussions, sources say
  • Arms control predicted to be among the main topics of discussion in the proposed talks

China and the US are preparing for a meeting between their top military officials amid rising tensions over Taiwan and an arms race over the most lethal hypersonic weapons.

Following last month’s virtual call between presidents Xi Jinping and Joe Biden, the two militaries have been in touch to discuss the possibility of US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin holding talks with Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission, and Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, according to people familiar with the matter.

“It is one of the consensuses reached during the Xi-Biden summit,” one of them said. “The two leaders have ordered the militaries to discuss the arrangements.”

The format and details of the dialogue is yet to be finalised, but a source said that a telephone call or virtual conference in early January was being considered.

US military officials have sought to maintain an open line of communication with their Chinese counterparts to prevent potential flare-ups. But for a long time, chances for talks have been scarce because the two sides have not been able to agree on which Chinese official was Austin’s counterpart.

The US has been pushing for a meeting with Xu, second in command of the armed forces after Xi. But Chinese officials believe Wei should be the counterpart for Austin.

In August, Michael Chase, US deputy assistant secretary of defence for China, spoke with Chinese Major General Huang Xueping, deputy director of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) international military cooperation office.

A source close to the PLA said that it had started preparations for defence dialogue before the Xi-Biden summit, because both sides considered strategic stability a top priority.

During a meeting lasting three and a half hours, Xi and Biden agreed to continue discussions on a range of issues, even as tensions have continued to rise over issues including Taiwan.

The US has significantly boosted engagement with Taiwan in recent years, while China has stepped up deployment of fighter jets into Taiwan’s air defence identification zone.

Taiwan was a major issue discussed in the Xi-Biden video meeting. Xi issued a stern warning to his counterpart over the self-ruled island, which Beijing sees as a renegade province to be reunited by force if necessary.

The issue was also discussed last week between Qin Gang, the Chinese ambassador to the US, and Kurt Campbell, Biden’s Asia tsar, according to the first source.

Qin protested against the US decision to invite Taiwan to its Summit for Democracy next week, as well as a possible US diplomatic boycott of the Winter Olympics, to be held in Beijing in February.

Washington has also been pushing for talks about arms control. Frank Kendall, secretary of the US Air Force, told Reuters on Tuesday that the two nations were engaged in an arms race in developing hypersonic weapons.

In October, US General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, confirmed reports of China testing a hypersonic glide vehicle capable of evading American missile defence systems. US national security officials have expressed surprise and concern about China’s hypersonic advances.

Washington has repeatedly urged China to join arms control talks and proposed a new three-way arms control treaty with Russia.

Sources said arms control was likely to be among the main topics to discuss in the proposed military talks, but China has made clear that it does not want to address arms control with the US on a bilateral basis.

“Arms control should be discussed between the US, China and Russia,” the second source said. “The world’s two most powerful nuclear countries should show their commitment, and assure China’s security will not be harmed by joining the new US-Russia arms control deal.”

Despite a lack of political trust and confrontations in the East China and South China seas, the source said the Chinese and US militaries had improved communications.

“The PLA’s opposition to US warships’ Taiwan Strait transits has been toned down,” they said. “They found the warships just sailed through international waters on a route that saved about a third of their journey from the South China Sea to their base in Japan.”

Authors: Catherine Wong, Minnie Chan, Reuters

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