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US Defense Chief Lloyd Austin Asks to Meet With China’s Still-Unnamed Counterpart

(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is making another attempt to meet with his Chinese counterpart this month as overall relations between the world’s biggest economies improve.

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Austin’s office formally requested that a sitdown be arranged at the upcoming Asean Defense Ministers Meeting-Plus in Jakarta, Indonesia, even though the Chinese position is vacant, a senior US defense official told reporters Monday. The previous minister, Li Shangfu, was ousted last month, and Beijing has yet to announce his replacement.

The move is part of US efforts to reestablish military contacts that were largely severed after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, prompting the People’s Liberation Army to hold unprecedented exercises around the democracy of some 23 million people. Austin sought a meeting with Li earlier this year but China refused, saying the US must first lift financial sanctions imposed on him in 2018 over weapons sales to Russia.

See: US-China Ties Quietly Mending Even as Global Turmoil Surges

The White House has said President Joe Biden will meet with Chinese leader Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in San Francisco in November, talks that would be their first in a year.

Plans for that meeting are adding to signs that ties between the two nations are getting better after the US sent at least four cabinet-level officials to Beijing since June. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi also traveled to Washington in late October to meet Biden and other top officials.

Adding to those positive signals, the US and China held their first talks on issues dedicated mainly to maritime issues since September 2019 on Friday, though the topics of the South China Sea and Taiwan have come up in other broader meetings. The two nations are also holding rare nuclear arms control talks this week amid growing concern over Beijing’s push to build up its arsenal of atomic weapons.

Chinese officials used the maritime discussions to again complain about “close reconnaissance,” a reference to patrols by the US and its allies in what Washington says is international airspace and waters. The US described the talks as “substantive, constructive and candid,” while adding that it “reiterated the need to resume military-military channels.”

The US and China have recently accused each other of provocative or unprofessional actions in the South China Sea, a reminder that ties remain fragile after tensions plummeted over trade, espionage and restrictions on high-tech shipments to the Asian nation.

Late last month, the two nations each released video showing tense encounters between naval vessels or warplanes, incidents that raise the risk of an accident spiraling into a bigger conflict.

--With assistance from Brian Fowler.

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