U.S. and Chinese military leaders finally speak to each other

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr. spoke with his Chinese counterpart Thursday morning, according to a readout of the call, the first high-level conversation between the two militaries in more than a year. 

China broke off direct military contacts with U.S. forces in the wake of then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit in August 2022 to Taiwan. Brown’s predecessor as chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Gen. Mark Milley, spoke with his Chinese counterpart a month prior to that. 

Brown’s video call at 6:30 a.m. ET with Gen. Liu Zhenli was the result of the talks between President Joe Biden and President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit last month, in which they agreed to restart military to military communications, according to a senior U.S. military official. 

NBC News previously reported that after the announcement, according to three senior American officials, U.S. defense officials repeatedly tried to reach their Chinese counterparts but did not receive any responses. 

The readout of Thursday’s call said the two military leaders spoke about the importance of working together and of maintaining open and direct lines of communication, and about global and regional security issues. They discussed the importance of opening lines of communication between the U.S. Indo-Pacific Command commander and his counterparts.

A senior U.S. defense official called the conversation “an important step but not the last step,” and said the U.S. military is having “working level discussions” with China “about future engagements to make sure we deliver on what President Biden and Chairman Xi agreed to in November.”

“We are planning to hold the bilateral defense policy coordination talks and we are aiming to hold rounds of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) talks in the spring,” the senior U.S. defense official said. 

The defense policy coordination talks are intended to be an annual dialogue, but China canceled them after Pelosi’s Taiwan visit. The talks are expected to resume in January, according to a senior U.S. defense official, and are expected to be led by a deputy assistant secretary of defense from the U.S. side and a major general on the Chinese military side. The last time the talks were held in person was prior to the Covid pandemic. 

The MMCA talks are about safety at sea and involve members of the military at an operator level, rather than more senior defense officials. A senior U.S. military official says they are aiming for those talks to restart in the spring. 

“It’s important to reopen the communication. These are the kinds of discussions that we need to have to try to avoid misunderstanding or miscalculation,” a senior U.S. defense official said. “Having those open channels of communication, obviously, is a key part of that.”

The officials said they are not aware of any recent unsafe or unprofessional behavior by the Chinese military. The most recent incident was Oct. 24, when a Chinese J-11 flew within 10 feet of a U.S. Air Force B-52 over the South China Sea. U.S. Indo-Pacific Command labeled the action as unsafe and unprofessional, saying the J-11 closed in on the B-52 with uncontrolled excessive speed, and flew low and directly in front of the U.S. aircraft, “putting both aircraft in danger of collision.”

That occurred before the APEC summit in San Francisco in November and the officials were not aware of any incidents since. 

“We do, however, continue to see coercive behavior by the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) in other contexts,” the senior U.S. defense official said, including “the recent encounters between the PRC (People’s Republic of China) and the Philippines around the second Thomas Shoal, for instance.” The official said, “This has been a recurring topic of conversation at multiple levels in our engagements with the PRC.”

The officials could not say whether there are any plans for Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to speak with a senior Chinese official or whom he would even speak with while China’s defense minister position remains vacant. “The PRC has yet to name a new minister of national defense,” the senior U.S. defense official said. “Our expectation is that they will likely announce one in March.”


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