US, China agree to high-level discussions between their militaries: Report

US President Joe Biden with Chinese President Xi Jinping during their virtual summit on Nov 15, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (BLOOMBERG) - Officials in Washington and Beijing have agreed to high-level conversations between their militaries, according to a person familiar with the matter.

During a 3½-hour virtual summit with President Joe Biden on Monday (Nov 15), Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to support such discussions between the US military and top officials from the People's Liberation Army, including the vice-chairman of the country's powerful Central Military Commission, said the person, who asked not to be identified discussing internal deliberations.

The White House is now defining a strategy on how to approach these engagements, including in the areas of cyber security, space and nuclear weapons, as well as testing and deployment issues of concern to the United States, the person said.

The discussions will not be formal arms control negotiations of the kind that the US previously held with the Soviet Union and Russia, according to the person, who said the exact format for the forthcoming military-to-military talks is still to be determined.

The agreement is a further sign of thawing ties between the world's two largest economies and comes after months of escalating tensions, fuelled most recently by China's test of a hypersonic weapon and a warning from Pentagon intelligence officials that China's nuclear arsenal was growing more quickly than expected.

A National Security Council spokesman said that during the summit with Mr Xi, Mr Biden raised the importance of managing strategic risk and establishing guard rails to avoid miscalculation and misperception.

The spokesman, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the administration remains interested in engaging with appropriate military counterparts, but emphasised that such engagement has not yet taken place.

After almost nine months in office, Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin has yet to speak to his counterpart at China's Defence Ministry, a government organisation that formally represents the Chinese military to the world but lacks the power of the Communist Party's Central Military Commission.

Asked about the prospect of high-level talks, Pentagon officials pointed to a briefing on Nov 16 in which Defence Department spokesman John Kirby said the Biden administration was seeking ways that it can cooperate with China, for example, on climate, and that it "would like nothing more than to be able to deter any conflict or miscalculation" .

The Chinese Embassy in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.

Following their virtual summit this week, Mr Xi and Mr Biden agreed in principle to talk again, but the US did not ask for a specific date or time, the person said.

The agreement to elevate ties between the countries' militaries marks a step towards reestablishing regular channels of high-level communication between them.

US officials have long complained that the kind of highly orchestrated, formal dialogues preferred by Beijing are unproductive.

Former president Donald Trump scrapped most regular high-level talks with the exception of trade negotiations.

The Biden administration has been cautious so far about reconstituting previous formats for talks.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said in July that she and her staff have no plans to resurrect the regular US-China economic dialogue scrapped by Mr Trump.

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