Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said US officials “certainly desire to have a dialogue with our counterparts in Beijing”.
“We desire to have a dialogue with our counterparts in Beijing, and we’re still working our way through what that’s going to look like and how that’s going to transpire,” he told reporters on Tuesday.
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But Kirby did not confirm media reports that said US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin’s request for telephone discussions with Xu Qiliang, vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, had been rejected by Beijing.
The Financial Times reported that Beijing had on three occasions rejected Austin’s requests to speak to Xu, citing an anonymous source from the US defence department. On Monday, nationalistic Chinese tabloid Global Times said the Pentagon “did not follow diplomatic protocol”.
A Chinese military source told the South China Morning Post that the Chinese side considered Austin’s counterpart to be Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, rather than Xu, and that Austin’s request had caused offence at the Chinese defence ministry.
The Pentagon has been open about its desire to have top-level bilateral discussions with China amid a rise in tensions between the two sides.
Plans to hold talks were dealt a setback by the cancellation of the Shangri-La Dialogue security forum, due to be held in Singapore next month but called off because of the surge in Covid-19 cases in the city state.
Austin had planned to attend as part of his trip to Asia, while China, too, would have sent a delegation and was considering sending Wei.
Tensions between the Chinese and US militaries are continuing, with Beijing dismayed at the American military presence in the region.
Last Tuesday, the Chinese military accused the US Navy of “provocations” after an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer, USS Curtis Wilbur, sailed through the Taiwan Strait. The US said it was a “routine” transit in accordance with international law, adding that the US military would “continue to fly, sail and operate anywhere international law allows”.
Despite Beijing’s protest, the US warship continued on through the Paracel Islands in the disputed South China Sea two days later. The Chinese navy’s Southern Theatre Command said it had expelled the US ship – a claim the US denied.
Beijing has also shown its displeasure at the US pulling troops from Afghanistan, saying it had created security risks in the region and demanding the troops be withdrawn in an orderly manner.
Kirby said the US troops’ mission in Afghanistan had been accomplished.
“The terrorist threat emanating from Afghanistan has been diminished,” he said. “Not extinguished by any means, but diminished.”
He said it would be “our hope that there’s a peace process in Afghanistan that is Afghan-led”.
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