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US, China discuss defence relations in vital Pentagon meeting

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Xie Feng, Chinas new ambassador to the U.S., addresses the media as he arrives at JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 23, 2023. REUTERS/File
Xie Feng, China’s new ambassador to the U.S., addresses the media as he arrives at JFK airport in New York City, U.S., May 23, 2023. REUTERS/File 

Chinese Ambassador Xie Feng made a significant visit to the Pentagon for security-related talks, highlighting a rare meeting between high-ranking officials from China and the United States. 

The ambassador discussed defence relations and various international and regional security issues with Ely Ratner, a US assistant secretary of defense. The talks lasted for about 90 minutes, indicating the importance of maintaining open lines of military communication between the two countries. 

The meeting is seen as a response to US concerns, although actual progress will require further time and negotiations. China’s embassy in Washington did not provide an immediate comment on the meeting. 

The meeting at the Pentagon comes at a time when US-China relations are strained over national security matters, including Taiwan, US export bans on advanced technologies, and China’s state-led industrial policies. The United States has been making efforts to repair ties with China, with recent visits from US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, climate envoy John Kerry, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken. However, Beijing had previously rejected Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s attempts to hold a comprehensive meeting with his Chinese counterpart, and military communications have faced setbacks.

Colin Kahl, the Pentagon’s top policy adviser, expressed frustration with China’s response to crisis management channels, saying, “When we have these conversations with them, they’re like: ‘If you don’t want crises, there’s a simple answer … Get out.'” The response appears to be rooted in China’s concerns about US sanctions, particularly regarding Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu. Sun Yun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center, suggested that addressing the sanctions on Li could be a prerequisite for resuming lower-level military communications.

The visit by the Chinese ambassador to the Pentagon marks a rare occasion of engagement between the two countries at the highest defense level. While it demonstrates a response to US concerns, the actual progress towards resolving the issues will require additional time and negotiations. 

The strained US-China relations, including disagreements over Taiwan and technology, have hindered military communications. The importance of maintaining open lines of communication between the two nations was highlighted during the meeting. The issue of US sanctions on Chinese officials, particularly Defense Minister Li Shangfu, has been a point of contention, and addressing these sanctions could potentially facilitate further dialogue.

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