US-China military talks aim to ease tensions with Covid-19 prevention focus

Keegan Elmer
·4-min read

China and US armed forces kicked off three days of discussion on control of the coronavirus pandemic, humanitarian aid and disaster prevention on Wednesday, in a rare glimpse of cooperation amid rising tensions between the world’s two biggest military powers.

According to a short statement from the Chinese defence ministry, discussions will include Covid-19 prevention and control, a cooperative response to floods and typhoons, and civil-military cooperation. Meetings will be held via video conference, with the Chinese side in Nanjing, capital of the eastern province of Jiangsu, and the US team in Hawaii.

Diplomatic observers said the talks – the 16th regular exchange between the two militaries – could help reduce the risk of a major conflict between the two nations after a series of post-election personnel changes at the Pentagon.

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US President Donald Trump, who continues to contest the result of last week’s presidential election, removed defence secretary Mark Esper on Monday and three other senior Pentagon officials resigned on Tuesday. The shake-up raised concerns that the outgoing president was considering tough action against China before his departure in January, with the possibility that conflicts could escalate before president-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration.

Pang Zhongying, an international relations expert at the Ocean University of China, said the talks were a “pragmatic sign” amid all the uncertainty between the two countries.

“This shows they are still communicating, which will help lower the risk of misjudgment and an accidental clash. The chance of a major conflict should be lowered,” he said.

The inclusion of Covid-19 in the discussions marked a change after the Trump administration’s criticism of China throughout the pandemic, according to Collin Koh, a research fellow from the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.

“Though this event isn’t novel, it shows both militaries’ desire to keep political tensions under a lid and prevent undesirable spillovers into the military domain.”

Koh said the use of “low hanging fruit” like humanitarian discussions to reinvigorate military exchanges was a positive sign which was likely to continue.

“Efforts like these would likely dovetail into the incoming Biden administration approach towards China – one that could look into cooperation with Beijing in areas of common interest, not necessarily having to compete on all fronts,” he said.

Military tensions between Beijing and Washington, already high during the Trump administration, further escalated ahead of the US elections, raising concerns of armed conflict arising out of a misstep between the two powers. The US spends more on defence than any other country, followed by China.

US, China may ‘stumble’ into conflict in South China Sea

Late last month China threatened to retaliate after major US arms sales to Taiwan. Also last month, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo blasted Chinese activity in the South China Sea during a tour of the Philippines and Vietnam, both of which have conflicting maritime claims with Beijing in the disputed region.

The two sides held their first crisis communication working group meeting in late October and agreed to establish mechanisms to prevent mishaps as well as conduct post-crisis assessments. The Chinese defence ministry said previously that a joint maritime security consultation between the US and China would take place by the end of this year.

While this week’s military meetings will focus on humanitarian issues, including Covid-19, the pandemic has been a source of tension between the two armed forces. Several Chinese diplomats, including foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian, accused the US army of bringing the coronavirus to Wuhan, the central Chinese city where the first cases were reported.

On Tuesday, US state department official Atul Keshap said China had “exploited the Covid-19 crisis with destabilising actions” by acting more aggressively in the South China Sea and reiterated Washington’s rejection of Beijing’s “unlawful maritime claims” in the region.

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