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Austin speaks with Chinese counterpart in first at-length conversation since 2022

By Haley Britzky, CNN

(CNN) — US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke on Tuesday morning with China’s Minister of National Defense Adm. Dong Jun, marking both Austin’s first call with Dong and his first at-length conversation with his Chinese counterpart since November 2022.

During their teleconference call, Austin and Dong “discussed U.S.-PRC defense relations and regional and global security issues,” a news release said Tuesday morning.

“Secretary Austin underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea,” the release said. “He also discussed Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine and expressed concerns about recent provocations from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Secretary also reiterated that the United States remains committed to our longstanding one China policy, which is guided by the Taiwan Relations Act, the Three U.S.-China Joint Communiques, and the Six Assurances, and he reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Strait.”

Dong, a former naval commander, was appointed as China’s defense minister in December last year. A senior defense official on Monday declined to say for how long the call between the two had been in planning, but said they typically “take some time to schedule and prepare for on both sides.”

The conversation is a result of the meeting between President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping in November, the official said, which followed months of strained silence between the two countries. In 2023, China rejected a US proposal for Austin to meet with his then-counterpart Li Shangfu at the Shangri-La Dialogue Security Forum in Singapore.

It also comes less than two weeks after US and Chinese military representatives met in-person in Honolulu for the first meeting of its kind in years after cancellations by China.

“I think that what we’ve seen is the PRC committed to reestablishing or reopening these lines of communication … The call between the Secretary and the Minister is another step in that set of engagements, an important one, but certainly should not be the last one,” the official said. “I think we’ll have more coming throughout this year.”

While US officials said last fall that there had been an increase in unsafe behavior by Chinese pilots against US aircraft in the Pacific, the senior defense official on Monday said they have not seen that behavior since November.

“We have, however, seen behavior that risks escalation, very coercive behavior towards the Philippines and the maritime domain, particularly around Second Thomas Shoal,” the official said.

In his conversation with Dong on Tuesday, the release said Austin “reiterated that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows.”

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