Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies April 9, 2024, before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the Defense Department budget.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies April 9, 2024, before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the Defense Department budget. (Chad J. McNeeley/Defense Department)

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday morning spoke with China’s minister of national defense for the first time since November 2022, marking another step toward restoring military communications between the two major powers, the Pentagon said.

This was also the first time Austin has spoken with Adm. Dong Jun, who was appointed as China’s defense minister in December. The two spoke during a video teleconference.

“Secretary Austin underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea. He also discussed Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine and expressed concerns about recent provocations from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” the Pentagon said in a statement.

The conversation comes as the two nations have worked to expand communications and ease growing tensions. Military-to-military conversations stalled in August 2022, after Beijing suspended such communications after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited Taiwan.

China views Taiwan, the independent island, as its own territory and has threatened to bring Taiwan under its control by force.

China’s previous defense minister Wei Fenghe turned down a Pentagon request to speak with Austin last year after the U.S. shot down a Chinese spy balloon that had floated across the United States. Austin had previously met with Wei in 2022 at a defense conference in Cambodia.

President Joe Biden and China’s President Xi Jinping met in November for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco. Air Force Gen. Charles “CQ” Brown, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke with his Chinese counterpart in a video call the following month, marking the first senior military-to-military contact since the Pelosi visit.

Austin’s conversation comes less than two weeks after military officials from the U.S. and China met in Hawaii to discuss the safety of forces in the Pacific region.

Defense officials in recent years have been concerned about unsafe and unprofessional incidents involving the U.S. and China militaries in the region, particularly in and around the South China Sea, where China has built up an increasingly large military force and claims portions of it for itself.

Last October, the Pentagon released footage of more than 180 U.S. planes experiencing encounters with Chinese aircraft in the previous two years. A defense official, who spoke Monday on the condition of anonymity before the call, said the U.S. hasn’t seen any unsafe or unprofessional intercepts of U.S. aircraft since November.

“The secretary also reiterated that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international law allows,” the Pentagon statement said.

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Matthew Adams covers the Defense Department at the Pentagon. His past reporting experience includes covering politics for The Dallas Morning News, Houston Chronicle and The News and Observer. He is based in Washington, D.C.

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