SECDEF Austin: ‘Unfortunate’ that Chinese Defense Minister Won’t Meet

June 1, 2023 3:38 PM
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is welcomed to the Japanses Ministry of Defense by Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada Tokyo, Japan, June 1, 2023. DoD Photo

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on Thursday said he welcomes any opportunity for engagement with China’s military leadership in the future, despite Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu declining to meet with him during the upcoming IISS Shangri-La Dialogue.

Speaking in a joint press conference in Tokyo with Japan Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada, Austin said it’s important for countries with large, significant military capabilities to be able to talk to each other to manage crises and prevent events from spiraling out of control. Austin also said China continued to make provocative intercepts of U.S. and U.S. allies’ aircraft in international waters and air space, which prompted more communication attempts between the Pentagon and the Chinese Defense Ministry.

On Tuesday, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command issued a news release and video of a People’s Republic of China J-16 fighter intercepting a U.S Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft on May 26. The U.S. said the Chinese pilot performed an unnecessarily aggressive maneuver in which the pilot flew directly in front of the nose of the RC-135, forcing the U.S. aircraft to fly through its wake turbulence.

“The RC-135 was conducting safe and routine operations over the South China Sea in international airspace, in accordance with international law,” reads the statement from INDOPACOM.

Hamada said that both he and Austin cooperate on challenges posed by China and that it’s important to keep a frank dialogue with Beijing. But Japan has been more successful than the U.S. in regard to communication channels with the Chinese defense establishment, with the “hotline between Japanese and Chinese Defense Authorities” established on March 3, reads a statement.

The Ministry of Defense stated Hamada and Li held a 20-minute call using the hotline, in which both sides welcomed the start of its operational use and said they will operate the hotline appropriately and reliably.

Both sides agreed to continue communication between the defense authorities of Japan and China. China’s Ministry of National Defense also issued a news release on the phone call between the two defense chiefs and said “the establishment and operation of the direct telephone link is a practical measure to implement the important consensus reached by the leaders of the two states.”

Hamada is also scheduled to meet with Li during the Shangri-La Dialogue, according to a Japan Ministry of Defense release.

In contrast, Austin met with then-Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe on Nov. 22, 2022, on the margins of the Association of Southeast Asia Nations (ASEAN) Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus (ADMM-Plus) in Siem Reap, Cambodia, having earlier met with Wei last June at the 2022 Shangri La Dialogue. Both defense chiefs agreed to maintain communication and contact, strengthen crisis management and control and strive to maintain regional security and stability.

But relations between the two countries have been tense over U.S. restrictions on technology transfers and exports to China, the Taiwan issue and the shootdown of a Chinese surveillance balloon over the coast of South Carolina. Likewise, there has been no progress on establishing military communications. INDOPACOM chief Adm. John Aquilino said in March that his messages since late 2021 to initiate a communication line with his Chinese military counterparts have gone unanswered.

On May 23, Aquilino clarified that while there was an existing technical line to the Chinese military, he was not sure if anyone would answer if he called. During the discussion session National Committee on US-China Relations in New York People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Major General Zhongliang Yin, the Chinese military representative to the United Nations, said that China has committed itself to working with the United States to build stable relations Aquilino responded that he would like to see this demonstrated with conversations between him and the theatre commanders of the PLA.

During the press conference on Thursday, both the U.S. and Japanese defense chiefs criticized Russia’s ongoing war with Ukraine and North Korea’s recent satellite launch. Austin stated that the United States stands with its Japan and Republic of Korea allies in the face of North Korea’s continued provocations and that the United States would take all necessary measures to ensure the security of the U.S. homeland and the defense of its allies.

Along with Hamada, Austin also met with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, Foreign Affairs Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and National Security Advisor Takeo Akiba on Thursday, according to a Pentagon readout.

Following his Japan visit, the Secretary of Defense is expected to arrive in Singapore to participate in the Shangri-La Dialogue, which begins on Friday.

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir

Dzirhan Mahadzir is a freelance defense journalist and analyst based in Kuala Lumpur Malaysia. Among the publications he has written for and currently writes for since 1998 includes Defence Review Asia, Jane’s Defence Weekly, Navy International, International Defence Review, Asian Defence Journal, Defence Helicopter, Asian Military Review and the Asia-Pacific Defence Reporter.

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