Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III answers questions during a press conference at the conclusion of the NATO Defense Ministerial meetings at NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, Oct. 12, 2023. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

SYDNEY — American Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin engaged China’s defense minister, Adm. Dong Jun, today, the first time Austin has spoken to his Chinese counterpart in more than two years and the first communication since Dong was named to the post in January.

“The two officials discussed U.S.-PRC defense relations and regional and global security issues,” a Pentagon readout of the videoteleconference call said. “Secretary Austin underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea. 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 readout noted Austin said the US remains “committed” to America’s “longstanding one China policy” with regard to Taiwan, “and he reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability across the Strait.”

“The Secretary also reiterated that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate – safely and responsibly – wherever international law allows,” the Pentagon said.

The last time Austin spoke with his counterpart in Beijing was November 2022, when he met with the then-PRC Minister of National Defense Gen. Wei at the ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Cambodia.

Today’s call comes amid a relative warming in US-Chinese military-to-military relations, after the resumption of talks between the two navies, the working-level Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) in Honolulu, held for the first time since 2021.

China has often viewed military-to-military talks between the two countries as something to be granted to the US, a diplomatic benefit, while the US side sees the talks as crucial means to lessen the odds of miscalculation by an often aggressive China.

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A senior defense official, speaking on background ahead of today’s Austin call, told reporters that the PRC is not “asking us for anything in return for holding the exchanges; we’re not offering anything in return.

“I think from our perspective, we’ve communicated to them quite clearly that we think having these open lines of communication is important to avoid any kind of misperception, misunderstanding, miscalculation, anything that would cause competition to spiral into conflict,” the official said.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greets Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, June 10, 2022. (DoD photo by Chad J. McNeeley)

Holding regular mil-to-mil talks with China “is an important priority for us,” the senior defense official said, pointing to the PRC’s behavior in the South China Sea, as well as the importance of “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.”

There does appear to be a repeatable pattern here since, including the Honolulu talks, there have been at least four contacts between the two militaries in the last five months. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. CQ Brown spoke with his PLA counterpart, the chief of the Joint Staff Department, Gen. Liu Zhenli, in late December last year. Then the US-PRC Defense Policy Coordination Talks were held in early January. for the first time since 2021.

There also should be a stream of bilateral meetings between two militaries over the next year, the senior defense official indicated. Both Austin and Dong are expected to attend the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore next month. The senior defense official did not say they would meet, but didn’t rule it out, either.

“All of the ministers attending there are going to have bilateral meetings and multilateral meetings with a number of their counterparts. And so it’s certainly a forum that could provide a bilateral meeting, but we don’t have anything to announce yet on that front,” the official said.

The MMCA should see another two meetings this year: one more at the working level involving Navy captains or a Marine colonel and a so-called “plenary” session, this one perhaps at the admiral level. There is an agreement with the PRC to hold calls between the commander of US Indo-Pacific Command and his PRC counterparts. In the Chinese system, that would seem, the official told reporters, to indicate that the Eastern theater and Southern theater commanders are likely candidates for those talks.

The biggest recent barrier to talks with the Chinese military had been the fact that the US had imposed sanctions on China’s former defense minister, Li Shangfu. The PRC said repeatedly that there would be no meetings as long as the sanctions remained in place, even when the US said they were not a barrier to a meeting.

In a much-heralded if very brief encounter, Li and Austin shook hands across a table at the Shangri-La Dialogue last year, but it was for naught. Li was removed from his post without official explanation in October 2023.

China suspended all mil-to-mil talks in August 2022 after Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. US President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, agreed to their resumption in November 2023 at the San Francisco APEC summit.

“The Department will continue to engage in active discussions with PRC counterparts about future engagements between defense and military officials at multiple levels,” the Pentagon said today.

Breaking Defense’s Ashley Roque and Lee Ferran contributed to this report.