US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has spoken with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenge, for the first time as concerns persist in Washington that Beijing could provide military support to Russia following its invasion of Ukraine.
Pentagon spokesman John Kirby said the exchange on Wednesday between Austin and Wei was a “follow-up” to a call between US President Joe Biden and Chinese Premier Xi Jinping in March, in which the US leader warned that there would be “costs” if China supported Russia militarily.
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The White House has not indicated that it has received assurances from Beijing on that matter of military support to Russia.
“Secretary Austin and General Wei discussed US-PRC [People’s Republic of China] defence relations, regional security issues, and Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine,” Kirby said.
Despite having economic ties to both Ukraine and Russia, Chinese state media has amplified Russian propaganda at several points throughout the conflict.
In a meeting prior to the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the Chinese leader and Russian President Vladimir Putin declared that the friendship between their counties “has no limits”.
In a statement after Biden and Xi’s call in March, however, Beijing said that it did “not want to see” escalation of the war in Ukraine and that “China has always advocated peace and opposed war”.
The call on Wednesday with Wei came after Austin had sought for months, but to no avail, to speak with General Xu Qiliang, the highest-ranking uniformed officer in the Chinese Communist Party military structure. While Xu is more influential in China, Wei is technically Austin’s counterpart.
A senior defence official told the Associated Press that Austin had echoed Biden’s messages on the importance of managing US-Chinese strategic competition, including in the nuclear, space and cyber arenas, and improving crisis communications between the global powers.
Austin also raised US concerns about what Washington views as Chinese military provocations against Taiwan, the self-governing island that Beijing claims as a breakaway province, and he expressed US concerns about Chinese activities in the South China Sea and East China Sea.
During a meeting with NATO representatives in Brussels on Wednesday, Wendy Sherman, the US deputy secretary of state, also raised concerns over China’s “support for Russia’s aggression, including through its amplification of Russian disinformation about NATO” and the war in Ukraine.
Sherman “called for continued strong Transatlantic coordination to defend the rules-based international order”, the State Department said in a statement.
The meeting between Austin and Wei also came after China announced it had signed a security pact with the Solomon Islands, piquing concerns Beijing may try to establish a military installation on the South Pacific island nation.
US officials are scheduled to visit the Solomon Islands this week.