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, Adm. John C. Aquilino, the U.S. Pacific commander said Thursday in Singapore.
Adm. Aquilino also sought to counter statements made last week by Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang who said war with the United States is inevitable unless Washington moderates its policies.
The four-star commander said he was urged to reach out to the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) commanders by regional defense chiefs and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
Mr. Austin met in November with Gen. Wei Fenghe, China’s defense minister who is widely viewed as a figurehead within the military power structure controlled by the Communist Party.
Both officials agreed at that meeting that Adm. Aquilino should meet with PLA operational commanders for the southern and eastern theater military commands.
“For going on just over a year and a half, I have a standing request to be able to speak to either the eastern and or the southern theater commander from the PRC,” Adm. Aquilino said, using the acronym for People’s Republic of China.
The Chinese military commanders failed to respond, he said.
“We continue to ask because I do think it’s important,” Adm. Aquilino said. “But it’s concerning to me that I don’t have the ability to talk to someone should there be a reason to talk.”
A Chinese Embassy spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Gen. Lin Xiangyang heads the PLA’s eastern theater command. This command includes forces that would take part in any potential attack on Taiwan including more than 1,000 missiles targeted on the island.
Gen. Wang Xiubin is commander of China’s southern theater command, which oversees all military forces around the South China Sea. U.S. and Chinese forces frequently have engaged in tense interactions over disputed islands in the heavily trafficked, strategic waterway.
The effort to reach out to Chinese military commanders is part of the Pentagon’s decades-long program of military engagement as Beijing’s economic and military clout have vastly expanded.
Critics say the military talks and exchanges failed to produce “trust” between the Chinese Communist Party-dominated military and its American counterpart.
During several crises, including the 2001 midair collision between a U.S. EP-3 surveillance plane and Chinese J-8 fighter, Chinese military leaders refused to answer calls from U.S. military leaders.
Last month, Mr. Wei, the defense minister, turned down a request for a call from Mr. Austin following the shootdown of a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon off the South Carolina coast.
A Chinese military spokesman said that the call request was denied because the “U.S. side’s irresponsible and erroneous move has failed to create a proper atmosphere for dialogue and exchanges between the two militaries.”
Adm. Aquilino said he has close ties with other defense and military leaders in the region and speaks often with his counterparts over any military incident or natural disaster.
“And I’m hoping to have that same option with the PRC, but today it doesn’t exist, and it’s not from a lack of trying from this part,” he said.
Adm. Aquilino, a former Navy fighter pilot, said in a speech to the International Institute of Strategic Studies prior to the comments that the United States is not seeking a conflict with China and does not seek to “contain” China, as Beijing officials frequently assert.
The United States government also has not altered its policy toward the democratic-ruled island of Taiwan and does not support “independence,” he said.
China, however, exercises no political control over Taiwan, where Nationalist forces fled from the mainland during a civil war in 1949. Chinese President Xi Jinping has said taking control of Taiwan is central to an overall plan of “rejuvenation” for the communist power.
The United States has vowed to prevent a forcible takeover of the island and likely would be involved in a defense of the island along with regional allies should Beijing launch a military strike.
The information wars
The U.S. Pacific commander said he sought to reiterate the three points in countering what he said is “misinformation, disinformation, propaganda… and there’s a lot of it out there.”
Adm. Aquilino said the digital age of high-speed communications and social media often produces confusion and incorrect interpretations and perceptions.
“Three days ago, the foreign minister of the PRC, in the wake of the closing of the 20th Party Congress, articulated that war with the United States is inevitable,” he said, citing one example. “And it’s important for me to ensure that my partners and the PRC knows that the United States is not pursuing conflict.”
Strategic competition with China, however, is “robust” and involves friction between the two nations, he acknowledged. But the competition “does not mean we will acquiesce to every demand.”
In July 2021, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman was presented two lists of more than 20 demands that Chinese State Councilor Wang Yi said were a precondition for improved bilateral ties.
The list has been kept secret by the Biden administration. But Chinese state media described the lists as “U.S. wrongdoings that must stop” and “list of key individual cases that China has concerns with.”
Adm. Aquilino said it is critically important for the United States and regional allies to promote what he called the rules-based international order in the face of China’s promotion of its communist model.
The admiral said he was directed by Mr. Austin to prevent any potential conflict with China and although no conflict appears imminent or inevitable, “in my role it doesn’t matter.
“U.S. Indo-Pacom is taking actions every day to prevent any potential conflict,” he said.
Mr. Austin also directed U.S. military forces to be ready to defeat any adversary if war cannot be avoided, Adm. Aquilino said.
“So, as we figure out how to go forward together, there’s really one question we should ask ourselves, and that is: What kind of world would we like to leave our children and grandchildren?
The two outcomes are a world “that suffers from a tradition of tyranny” or one that “flourishes with a legacy of liberty that includes a free and open Indo-Pacific,” he said.
Adm. Aquilino was asked about apparent differences between his assessment of when China could attack Taiwan and those of his predecessor, Adm. Philip Davidson who in 2021 said an attack could come by 2027.
Adm. Aquilino had said that the problem of a Chinese strike could be “much closer” than most analysts think.
“I did not disagree with Adm. Davidson,” he said. “What Adm. Davidson stated was that [President Xi] tasked his military structure to deliver the capabilities that would be needed by 2027. That’s the date it was based on. That’s just a fact. It’s what was tasked by the president of China to his military forces.”
He added, “If I knew what the timeline [for a Taiwan invasion] was, I wouldn’t be sitting here. … I’d be in Las Vegas.”
The timing of a Chinese attack is less important because Indo-Pacific Command is doing what it can to avert a conflict through so-called “integrated deterrence,” and if deterrence fails “to be prepared to fight and win,”Adm. Aquilino said.
On another hot spot, Adm. Aquilino said North Korea’s latest test launch Wednesday of an intercontinental ballistic missile was destabilizing for the region and pressed 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 for a joint response.
“Ultimately, it’s destabilizing, it’s unpredictable, it’s continuing, [and] it’s not slowing down,” he said.“And the potential for the People’s Republic of China to help dissuade [North Korea] from executing these events would be helpful.”