U.S. and China Hold Military Talks on Avoiding 'Accidents' at Sea, in Air

U.S. forces in the Pacific are convening virtual talks with their Chinese counterparts this week, in keeping with commitments made during last month's summit between Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping.

In a statement released on Tuesday, the Hawaii-based U.S. Indo-Pacific Command (USINDOPACOM) said representatives from the U.S. Pacific Fleet (USPACFLT) and U.S. Pacific Air Forces (PACAF) would meet their People's Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and Air Force (PLAAF) counterparts between December 14 and 16.

The three-day meeting is being held under the two-decade-old Military Maritime Consultative Agreement (MMCA)—signed in 1998 between the Department of Defense and the People's Republic of China's (PRC) Ministry of National Defense—and will discuss "activities at sea and in the air of the two militaries, to promote safe practices and avoidance of accidents, and establish communications procedures when ships and aircraft encounter each other at sea and in the air," the notice read.

"The U.S. remains fully committed to its allies and partners to ensure peace and stability in the region," said Maj. Gen. Chris McPhillips, director for Strategic Planning and Policy at USINDOPACOM, who is leading the U.S. delegation.

His statement continued: "This agreement with the PRC is intended to enable constructive, results-oriented dialogue that ensures safe operations and maintains regional stability. We are genuine in our desire to have frank conversation, develop mutual understanding, and reduce operational safety risks."

"The United States and PRC have met regularly since 1998 for MMCA dialogue to strengthen military maritime safety, improve operational safety in the air and sea, and reduce risk of miscalculation between the two militaries," USINDOPACOM said.

Despite heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the East and South China seas, this is only the third U.S.-China defense meeting to be publicized this year, following two sessions at the deputy assistant secretary of defense level in August and September.

In the months after Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's appointment, the Pentagon has noted unsuccessful attempts to convene high-level dialogue with China's military leadership, particularly those in the Central Military Commission chaired by Xi. The lack of consistent communications was considered a recipe for potential clashes, accidental or otherwise.

Commitment to Dialogue

Following last month's 3 1/2-hour Biden-Xi summit, in which the two leaders continued to disagree on Taiwan, they committed to maintaining open dialogue—through all available channels and mechanisms—in order to manage tensions and prevent misunderstandings.

At a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last Wednesday, Ely Ratner, the Pentagon's assistant secretary of defense for Indo-Pacific security affairs, said the Defense Department had worked to renew military-to-military relations with the PLA over the last year, with a focus on "crisis communications and crisis management."

Beijing has complained for a year or more about "close-in reconnaissance" by American military vessels and aircraft in the seas and skies around China—pointed but otherwise lawful missions conducted by USPACFLT and PACAF. China renewed calls for the U.S. to end its freedom of navigation and overflight operations during its monthly Defense Ministry press conference at the end of November.

In turn, equally lawful PLAN and PLAAF activity has alarmed defense planners in Taiwan and Japan, where both governments are busy bolstering their defense capabilities to meet the escalating military challenge.

U.S., China Hold Military Talks Over Tensions
Flags of the United States and China are shown in a file photo ahead of a meeting in 2017. JASON LEE/AFP via Getty Images