Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said today that he is encouraged by the White House’s announcement that China plans to return to military-to-military talks following President Biden’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Austin welcomed the progress while in Jakarta, Indonesia – the final leg of his ninth official visit to the Indo-Pacific. The visit showcased the growing cooperation among the U.S. and its like-minded partners in the region.
“As you know, we had been open to meeting with [Chinese leaders] here in Jakarta, but we’re encouraged by recent news from the White House on the planned resumption of military-to-military communications,” Austin said.
“You’ve heard me say before that there is no substitute for consistent and substantive dialogue between senior leaders,” he said. “So, we’ll continue to seek practical discussions with [the Chinese] from a senior leader level to the working level.”
The plan to resume military-to-military talks at senior levels, including between theater commanders, was one of several agreements reached during Biden’s meeting with Xi on Wednesday in Woodside, Calif.
The two leaders also discussed the resumption of bilateral efforts to combat global illicit drug manufacturing and trafficking, including fentanyl. They also discussed the need to address the risks of advanced artificial intelligence systems and improve artificial intelligence safety.
Defense officials have repeatedly raised concerns over China’s lack of communication with U.S. military leaders, noting that Beijing has consistently denied or ignored U.S. requests for defense engagements at multiple levels.
Those concerns have been amplified as U.S. officials observe increasingly provocative and risky behavior on the part of China’s military.
Defense officials have noted a steep rise in risky and aggressive intercepts by China’s military of U.S. aircraft operating in international airspace in accordance with international law.
According to the most recent China Military Power Report, the U.S. has documented more than 180 coercive and risky air intercepts against U.S. aircraft in the region between 2021 and 2023.
That is more risky intercepts in the past two years than in the past decade, according to the report.
Austin said today that, while it is too soon to tell whether China’s pledge to resume military-to-military dialogue signals a broader intent to dial back provocations in the region, it is critical that the two countries maintain open lines of communication.
“I won’t make any predictions about China’s future behavior,” Austin said. “What I will say is that we will continue to need the mechanism to manage crises and make sure we prevent things from spiraling out of control from time to time.”
“That’s even more important if activities in the region have increased – if unhelpful things like close intercepts … have increased” he said. “[That’s] all the more reason that senior leaders need to be able to talk to each other.”
China’s increasingly provocative behavior, however, has far from derailed U.S. engagement in the Indo-Pacific as evidenced by Austin’s latest trip to the region.
Austin visited India, South Korea and Indonesia, where he engaged with counterparts throughout the region and continued what defense officials describe as historic momentum with allies and partners throughout the region.
While in India, Austin met with Indian Defense Minister Rajnath Singh amid what Austin described as a “transformative period in U.S.-India relations” as the two countries expand their defense industrial cooperation and enhance interoperability between their militaries.
Those discussions culminated in a new agreement to move forward with the coproduction of armored infantry vehicles, the leaders announced, building upon progress highlighted this summer when the two countries announced they would partner in producing jet engines.
The countries also discussed steps to strengthen supply chain security and integrate the distribution of goods from U.S. and Indian firms, Austin said following today’s talks.
While in South Korea, Austin held talks with South Korean Defense Minister Shin Won-sik and Japanese Defense Minister Kihara Minoru.
Those discussions built upon the progress made in deepening the ties among the three countries at the August summit among President Joe Biden, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol at Camp David, Maryland.
Austin also participated alongside his South Korean counterpart in the 55th Security Consultative Meeting, an annual capstone event marking the long-standing U.S.-South Korean defense relationship.
This year’s meeting built upon Biden and Yoon’s commitment to further bolstering the U.S.-South Korean alliance amid growing nuclear threats posed by North Korea.
During the session, Austin and his South Korean counterpart shared their vision for the future of the alliance, which they recognize as a “staple for peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula and in the Indo-Pacific region and a stalwart protector of international norms.”
Austin also participated in the inaugural United Nations Command defense ministers’ meeting on his final day in South Korea.
In Indonesia, he attended the Association of Southeast Asian Nations Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.
The summit includes representation from China, Russia, India, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand in addition to the 10 ASEAN member states and the U.S.
During the forum, Austin held bilateral discussions with his counterparts from the Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand.
The secretary also participated in an informal meeting with ASEAN counterparts where he detailed plans to implement the U.S.-ASEAN Comprehensive Strategic Partnership.
That partnership includes the emerging leaders defense program and a new gender adviser initiative that the U.S. will support alongside ASEAN partners.
Every year since becoming Secretary of Defense, I’ve attended the ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus.
Proud to continue our longstanding engagement with ASEAN at this year’s gathering in Jakarta. pic.twitter.com/ZeaRcKdCa9
— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) November 16, 2023
“A common thread across all of my engagements here in Indonesia, in the Republic of Korea and India, has been our shared commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific,” Austin said. “We’ve heard our allies and partners express their support for this goal and we’re working closely with our ASEAN friends to promote a regional order based on the rule of law, respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
He added that the engagements mark a continuation of what has been “an historic year” of initiatives to advance defense and security cooperation throughout the region, adding that the U.S. will continue to make progress with like-minded partners throughout the region.
“We have been out in the region, throughout,” Austin said. “Even though we’re busy in Europe [and] we’re busy in the Middle East, we’re here in the Indo-Pacific.”
“This is my ninth trip to the region as secretary of defense,” he said. “I think that sends a powerful message and reassures our allies and partners.”