BEIJING (Dispatches) – Beijing has turned down U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s multiple requests to speak with China’s top general, U.S. defense officials said on Friday.
Relations between China and the United States have grown increasingly tense, with the world’s two largest economies clashing over a wide range of issues.
“The military relationship is strained, no question about that. It’s hard to know how much this is reflective of that strain as much as it is just Chinese intransigence,” a U.S. military official said.
Tensions have mounted between the militaries of the world’s two largest economies, in part due to increased U.S. military activity in sensitive areas like the South China Sea. The United States frequently dispatches warships to patrol the disputed waters and sends spy planes on missions near China’s coast.
A second U.S. official told Reuters that the Joe Biden administration was debating whether Austin should speak with vice chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, Xu Qiliang, or Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.
U.S. officials told the Financial Times that the Pentagon chief had already made three requests to speak with Xu, who is seen as having more power and influence with Chinese President Xi Jinping, but the requests have gone unanswered.
Beijing has regularly criticized Biden’s administration for its bellicose rhetoric toward China, which echoes the policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
In his first address to Congress, President Biden said the U.S. was in competition with China to “win the 21st century.” Biden also said that he told his Chinese counterpart of a U.S. plan to militarize the Indo-Pacific “just as we do with NATO in Europe.”
The Pentagon has also labeled China as the top “pacing threat” facing the U.S. military.
China has constantly warned the U.S. against its military activities in the sea, saying that potential close military encounters between the air and naval forces of the two countries in the region could trigger accidents.
In another development regarding China, Philippines’ foreign ministry said it held “friendly and candid” talks with Beijing on the South China Sea, days after the minister ordered Chinese vessels out of the disputed waterway in an expletive-laced tweet.
The presence of hundreds Chinese vessels inside the Philippines 200-mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) has been the latest source of tensions between the two countries in the South China Sea, through which $3 trillion worth of goods pass every year.
The Philippines said the encroaching vessels were manned by militia, while Beijing said they were fishing boats sheltering from bad weather.
“The two sides had friendly and candid exchanges on the general situation and specific issues of concern in the South China Sea,” under a bilateral consultation mechanism convened in 2016 to ease tensions in the strategic waterway, the Department of Foreign Affairs (DFA) said in a statement.