Pentagon Chief Tells China To Rein In Military's 'Dangerous Behavior'

Senior defense officials from the United States and China met in Cambodia on Tuesday to air their respective concerns in a further easing of bilateral tensions since the fallout of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taiwan in August.

Lloyd Austin, the U.S. secretary of defense, pressed his Chinese counterpart, Gen. Wei Fenghe, on the "increasingly dangerous behavior" of Beijing's forces in the Indo-Pacific region, Pentagon press secretary Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder said in a press release.

The U.S. and its allies have recorded a number of close air and sea encounters with the Chinese military, known as the People's Liberation Army, this year. This included one oft-cited incident where a PLA fighter jet intercepted an Australian maritime patrol aircraft in the South China Sea before releasing chaff into its path, causing the radar-blocking metal strips to be sucked into the plane's engine.

Beijing said its pilots showed "maximum restraint." Its response to Washington's complaints, according to Pentagon policy chief Colin Kahl, was that the aircraft was operating too close to China, albeit in international airspace.

Lloyd Austin Meets China's Wei Fenghe
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks during a press conference at the Pentagon on November 16, 2022, in Washington, D.C. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Austin told Wei that the U.S. would "continue to fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," Ryder said. "Secretary Austin emphasized the need to responsibly manage competition and maintain open lines of communication."

The meeting in Siem Reap happened on the margins of the ASEAN's Defense Ministerial Meeting Plus, and came shortly after Joe Biden and China's Xi Jinping met in Bali for their first in-person talks as presidents, a major icebreaker that will help thaw out U.S.-China relations at the ministerial and working-group levels.

Biden came away from the meeting insisting that a new Cold War wasn't a foregone conclusion. Xi, meanwhile, took the opportunity to renew warnings about Beijing's red lines—especially on democratically governed Taiwan, the Chinese-claimed island whose defense is backed by the U.S.

Beijing froze a number of communication and cooperation channels after Pelosi, the California Democrat who is retiring from party leadership in the House, became the most senior U.S. official to set foot in Taipei in 25 years.

The PLA spun up a series of war games around the island, whose response, like Washington's, was deliberately muted, but many feared unintentional clashes nonetheless.

Wei laid the blame for fractious bilateral ties at the feet of his American counterparts.

Xi and Biden were "charting the right course for the development of China-U.S. relations," he said, according to a Chinese defense ministry readout, before noting: "The responsibility for the current situation in China-U.S. relations lies with the U.S., not with China."

"China values the development of relations between the two countries and the two militaries, but the U.S. must respect China's core interests," Wei said. He repeated Xi's description of Taiwan as "the very core of China's core interests" and "the first red line that must not be crossed in China-U.S. relations."

Lloyd Austin Meets China's Wei Fenghe
This image published by the Ministry of National Defense of China shows China’s Defense Minister Gen. Wei Fenghe, right, in talks with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on November 22, 2022, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. Ministry of National Defense, China

Taiwan rejects China's sovereignty claims and says the island's future must be decided by its 23.5 million people. The U.S., which has a legal obligation to assist Taipei with its self-defense, believes the Chinese leadership seeks to take over Taiwan, but isn't yet able to do so without incurring heavy costs in the form of loss of life and potential international isolation.

During the talks, Austin "reaffirmed the importance of peace and stability" across the Taiwan Strait, said Ryder. "He underscored his opposition to unilateral changes to the status quo and called on [China] to refrain from further destabilizing actions toward Taiwan."

Pacing Challenge

Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum in Washington last week, Austin said China was "trying to refashion both the region and the international system to suit its authoritarian preferences."

His trips to Indonesia and Cambodia this week—and Vice President Kamala Harris' call on U.S. ally the Philippines—were attempts by the Biden administration to shore up its long-time role as the region's preferred security guarantor amid China's rapid rise.

But under Xi, China's military modernization and the expansion of its hard power capabilities across multiple domains will continue unabated, regardless of whether it has the acquiesce of other capitals.

Biden's priority, his officials say, is to ensure that competition with China, the Pentagon's "pacing challenge," is managed responsibly in order to avoid accidents at a time when forces from both countries become accustomed to operating in proximity.

Austin stressed "the importance of substantive dialogue on reducing strategic risk, improving crisis communications and enhancing operational safety," the Pentagon said, while Beijing noted a consensus to "maintain communication and contact, strengthen crisis management and control, and strive to maintain regional security and stability."

Tuesday's meeting was their first in-person since June, when both men attended the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia's largest defense forum, in Singapore. The agenda of those talks was largely the same as it was this week.

They delivered competing addresses at the event, with Wei declaring China would "fight at all costs" to prevent Taiwan from declaring formal independence. "We will fight to the very end. This is the only choice for China," he said.

Taipei described his speech as public intimidation and "a declaration of war."