Chinese military commanders refuse talks with US admiral

Two Chinese military commanders are refusing to consult with the commander of the Pentagon’s Indo-Pacific Command amid rising tensions between the two militaries, Admiral John C. Aquilino, the U.S. Pacific Commander said in Singapore on Thursday.

Admiral Aquilino also sought to counter statements made last week by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang, who said war with the United States was inevitable unless Washington moderated its policies.

The four-star commander said he had been urged by regional defense chiefs and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to approach the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders.

Mr. Austin met in November with General Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister, who is widely seen as a figurehead within the Communist Party-controlled military power structure.

Both officials agreed at this meeting that Admiral Aquilino should meet with PLA task force commanders for the military commands in the southern and eastern theaters of war.

“Having been around for a little over a year and a half, I have a constant request to be able to speak to either the Eastern and/or Southern Theater Commander from the PRC,” Adm. Aquilino and used the acronym for People’s Republic of China.

Chinese military commanders did not respond, he said.

“We keep asking because I think it’s important,” Adm said. Aquilino. “But it worries me that I won’t be able to talk to anyone should there be a need to talk.”

A Chinese embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

General Lin Xiangyang heads the PLA’s Eastern Theater Command. This command includes forces that would take part in a possible attack on Taiwan, including more than 1,000 missiles aimed at the island.

General Wang Xiubin is the commander of China’s Southern Warfare Command, which oversees all forces around the South China Sea. US and Chinese forces have frequently engaged in tense interactions over disputed islands in the busy, strategic waterway.

Efforts to reach Chinese military commanders are part of the Pentagon’s decade-long program of military engagement as Beijing’s economic and military clout has increased tremendously.

Critics say the military talks and exchanges failed to create “trust” between the Chinese Communist Party-dominated military and its American counterpart.

During several crises, including the mid-air collision between a US EP-3 surveillance aircraft and a Chinese J-8 fighter in 2001, Chinese military leaders refused to answer calls from US military leaders.

Last month, Mr. Wei, the secretary of defense, declined a request for a call from Mr. Austin following the downing of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the coast of South Carolina.

A Chinese military spokesman said the call request was denied because “the US side’s irresponsible and erroneous move failed to create an appropriate atmosphere for dialogue and exchanges between the two militaries.”

Admiral Aquilino said he has close ties with other defense and military leaders in the region and often speaks with his colleagues about military incidents or natural disasters.

“And I hope to have the same option with the PRC, but today it doesn’t exist and it’s not because of a lack of trying in that part,” he said.

Admiral Aquilino, a former Navy fighter pilot, said in a speech at the International Institute of Strategic Studies ahead of the comments that the United States does not seek conflict with China and is not trying to “contain” China, as Beijing officials frequently claim.

The United States government has also not changed its policy towards the democratically ruled island of Taiwan and does not support “independence,” he said.

However, China exercises no political control over Taiwan, where nationalist forces fled from the mainland during a civil war in 1949. Chinese President Xi Jinping said seizing control of Taiwan is central to an overall plan to “rejuvenate” communist power.

The United States has vowed to prevent a violent takeover of the island and would likely join regional allies in defending the island should Beijing launch a military strike.

The information wars

The US Pacific commander said he was trying to reiterate the three points to counter what he calls “misinformation, disinformation, propaganda… and there’s a lot of that out there.”

Adm. Aquilino said the digital age of high-speed communications and social media often leads to confusion and misinterpretations and perceptions.

“Three days ago, after the conclusion of the 20th Party Congress, the PRC Foreign Minister articulated that war with the United States was inevitable,” he said, giving an example. “And it is important to me to ensure that my partners and the PRC know that the United States is not pursuing a conflict.”

However, strategic competition with China is “robust” and brings friction between the two nations, he acknowledged. But competition “does not mean that we bow to every demand”.

In July 2021, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was presented with two lists of more than 20 demands that Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi described as a prerequisite for improved bilateral relations.

The list has been kept secret by the Biden administration. However, Chinese state media dubbed the lists a “US wrongdoing that must stop” and a “list of key individual cases China is concerned about.”

Adm. Aquilino said it was vitally important for the United States and its regional allies to promote what he called the rules-based international order, given China’s promotion of its communist model.

The admiral said he was instructed by Mr Austin to prevent any potential conflict with China, and while no conflict is imminent or seems inevitable, “it doesn’t matter in my role.

“US Indo-Pacom takes action every day to prevent potential conflict,” he said.

Mr. Austin also directed US forces to be ready to defeat any adversary if war cannot be avoided, Admiral Aquilino said.

“So as we consider how we move forward together, there’s really one question we should be asking, and that’s: What kind of world do we want to leave for our children and grandchildren?”

The two outcomes are a world “suffering from a tradition of tyranny,” or one that “thrives with a legacy of freedom that includes a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said.

Admiral Aquilino was asked about apparent differences between his assessment of when China could attack Taiwan and that of his predecessor, Admiral Philip Davidson, who in 2021 said an attack could come as soon as 2027.

Admiral Aquilino had said the issue of a Chinese strike could be “much closer” than most analysts think.

“I have Adm. Davidson did not object,” he said. “What Admiral Davidson said was that [President Xi] tasked its military structure to provide the capabilities that would be needed by 2027. That’s the date it was based on. That’s just a fact. It’s what the Chinese President instructed his armed forces to do.”

He added: “If I knew the schedule [for a Taiwan invasion] was, I wouldn’t be sitting here. … I would be in Las Vegas.”

The timing of a Chinese attack is less important as the Indo-Pacific Command does everything it can to deter a conflict through so-called “integrated deterrence,” and when deterrence fails, “being ready to fight and win,” Adm. said Aquilino.

At another focal point, Adm. Aquilino, North Korea’s latest test launch of an ICBM on Wednesday destabilized the region and urged China to rein in its ally in Pyongyang.

Military commanders from the United States, South Korea and Japan held talks on the missile launch and discussions on a joint response.

“Ultimately it’s destabilizing, it’s unpredictable, it’s ongoing, [and] it’s not slowing down,” he said. “And the potential for the People’s Republic of China to contribute to deterrence [North Korea] of running these events would be helpful.”

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