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6 Apr, 2024 14:27

US and China hold ‘direct and clear’ military talks

Beijing canceled the annual sit-down two years ago amid tension over Taiwan
US and China hold ‘direct and clear’ military talks

American and Chinese defense officials met in Hawaii this week to discuss how both nations’ fleets can operate safely in the Pacific region. The meetings were the first of their kind since Beijing severed military relations with Washington two years ago.

The Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA) working group talks were held in Honolulu on Wednesday and Thursday, US Indo-Pacific Command said in a statement on Friday. Some 18 officials from China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) took part, as did representatives of the US Indo-Pacific command, US Pacific Fleet, and US Pacific Air Forces.

The MMCA is the Indo-Pacific Command’s “primary means to directly discuss air and maritime operational safety with the PLA,” US delegation head Col. Ian Francis said. “Open, direct, and clear communications with the PLA – and with all other military forces in the region – is of utmost importance to avoid accidents and miscommunication.”

The Chinese Defense Ministry called the meetings “candid and constructive.”

The MMCA was formed in 1998, and met annually until 2021. The following year, Beijing severed all military-to-military contact with Washington in response to a visit by then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. As Pelosi is a member of US President Joe Biden’s Democratic Party, Beijing viewed the visit as a tacit endorsement of Taiwanese independence and a breach of the ‘One China’ policy, under which Washington recognizes, but does not endorse, Beijing’s sovereignty over the island.

However, relations between the two superpowers were strained for several years before Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan, with the South China Sea a particular flashpoint. The US has accused China of militarizing the sea and encroaching on territory claimed by the Philippines, Malaysia, and four other countries. On the other hand, China has condemned the US’ so-called “freedom of navigation” operations – which involve sending warships through China’s exclusive economic zone – as “provocations.”

In one encounter last summer, a Chinese warship cut in front of an American destroyer in the Taiwan Strait, forcing the US vessel to slow down to avoid a collision. 

Statements from both sides on Friday referenced this tension. US Indo-Pacific Command said that it would “continue to operate safely and professionally in the Indo­-Pacific wherever international law allows,” while the Chinese Defense Ministry said that “China firmly opposes any actions that endanger its sovereignty and security under the guise of freedom of navigation,” and that the PLA would “continue to respond to all dangerous and provocative actions.”

While the MMCA talks were the first of their kind since the diplomatic freeze of 2022, American and Chinese military representatives have met once in the years since. In January, senior Pentagon and Defense Ministry officials held talks in Washington to discuss relations between the two countries.