US defense chief speaks with Chinese counterpart, Pentagon says

By Thomson Reuters Apr 16, 2024 | 8:59 AM

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with China’s defense minister on Tuesday, the first engagement the two have had in over a year as the two countries seek to restore military ties.

The phone call comes as U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping have sought to manage tensions and after the two leaders last year resumed direct military talks.

In a readout after the call, the Pentagon said Austin “underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea.”

An escalating diplomatic row and recent maritime run-ins between China and the Philippines, a U.S. treaty ally, have made the highly strategic South China Sea a potential flashpoint between Washington and Beijing.

Prior to the November meeting between Biden and Xi, relations between the superpowers had become increasingly acrimonious, with friction over issues from Taiwan to China’s military activity in the South China Sea.

In October, the U.S. military said Chinese military aircraft had carried out risky or reckless maneuvers close to U.S. aircraft nearly 200 times since 2021.

Since then, the United States’ top military general has spoken with his Chinese counterpart.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Susan Heavey and Franklin Paul)