Chinese, US generals vow to manage military differences, like South China Sea

Minnie Chan

China and the United States will work together to manage their differences and maintain stable military ties, two of their top generals said on Tuesday, a day after Beijing suspended visits by US warships and aircraft to Hong Kong.

Relations between the US military and China’s People’s Liberation Army would not be affected by the ban on port calls, General Mark Milley, the chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and his Chinese counterpart, General Li Zuocheng, agreed in an “introductory” telephone call, according to a statement from the Pentagon.

The pair also promised to create “an opportunity to discuss building a constructive and results-oriented defence relationship”, it said.

“The two military leaders agreed on the value of a productive dialogue, effectively managing differences, and cooperation on areas of common ground,” it said, without providing further details.

China’s foreign ministry said on Monday that all reviews of requests made by US military aircraft and vessels to visit Hong Kong had been suspended, apparently in retaliation for US President Donald Trump signing into law the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which allows Washington to impose sanctions on officials deemed to have violated human rights in the city.

The conversation between Milley and Li was not their first. The pair met in Beijing in 2016 when they were both heads of their respective armies.

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A person close to the PLA’s Joint Staff Department said the call showed the two sides were determined to maintain a cooperative relationship despite the ruling from Beijing.

“It means military ties between the PLA and their American counterparts will remain stable even though [China] banned American warships and aircraft from making port visits in Hong Kong,” he said.

“The ban on port calls is just a diplomatic and political gesture to pacify the Chinese public after Trump signed the Hong Kong bill. The PLA doesn’t really want to fight with the Americans.”

General Mark Milley reviews an honour guard during his visit to Beijing in 2016. Photo: AFP

The two nations have locked horns over a number of military issues in recent years, not least in the South China Sea.

Beijing claims about 90 per cent of the waters – though is locked in territorial disputes with several regional neighbours – and has accused the US of infringing on its maritime rights with its so-called freedom of navigation operations.

For its part, Washington has criticised Beijing for building artificial islands in the disputed waters and ramping up its military presence there.

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Professor Shi Yinhong, director of the Centre for American Studies at Renmin University in Beijing and an adviser to the State Council – China’s cabinet – said the telephone call was just part of regular exchanges.

“[It] indicated that senior-level exchanges will continue, but it doesn’t help the two militaries to solve their core problems,” he said.

The major difficulties were “America’s increased surveillance in the South China Sea and its intervention on the Taiwan issue, neither of which are easy to resolve in the short term”, Shi said.

Milley’s visit to Beijing in 2016 came after an international arbitration panel ruled against China’s territorial claims to almost the entire South China Sea, to which Beijing responded by vowing to continue developing artificial islands there.

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