Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in Palau in 2022.

Adm. John C. Aquilino, commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, in Palau in 2022. U.S. Navy / Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Anthony J. Rivera

A year after China cut mil-to-mil contacts with US, a hint of thaw?

INDOPACOM commander met with Chinese military delegation, Pentagon confirms.

U.S. Indo-Pacific commander Adm. John Aquilino spoke with Chinese defense officials at a conference this month, a potential breakthrough in military-to-military communications more than a year after China suspended most such interactions.

When Air Force Brig. Gen. Pat Ryder was asked on Thursday to respond to a Chinese defense ministry spokesman’s comments about communication between the two militaries, the Pentagon press secretary cited Aquilino’s meeting as an example of U.S. willingness to keep avenues of communication open.

Ryder said Aquilino spoke to the Chinese officials at the 2023 Chiefs of Defense Conference, co-hosted by INDOPACOM in Fiji from Aug. 14 to 16. He did not say what was discussed in Fiji, nor whether INDOPACOM and PRC officials have talked since. 

INDOPACOM did not respond to a query about the meeting before publication.

Chinese officials suspended regular contacts with the U.S. military last August after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which China claims as part of its own country. “But the problem existed even before Pelosi’s visit,” the Associated Press wrote earlier this year. “The U.S. says China has declined or failed to respond to over a dozen requests from the Department of Defense for top-level dialogues since 2021.”

On Thursday, a Chinese defense ministry spokesman said that “military-to-military communication between China and the United States has not stopped” and mentioned Aquilino’s conference meeting with Gen. Xu Qiling, the deputy chief of staff in the Joint Staff Department of China’s Central Military Commission, the South China Morning Post reported

But the spokesman also said there are still “obstacles” to high-level military communication, including the sanctions on China’s defense minister, Gen. Li Shangfu, and continued U.S. arms sales to Taiwan.

Ryder was asked to respond at a Pentagon press conference. “[F]rom a United States standpoint, there is nothing preventing the [People’s Republic of China] minister of defense from communicating with Secretary [Lloyd] Austin,” Ryder said. “But again the broader point here being is that we're going to continue to do everything we can do on our part to maintain open lines of communication to reduce the potential for miscalculation. And ensure that, you know, we recognize that we have a relationship characterized by competition, but we do not want a relationship that results in conflict.”

Ryder said that recent conversations between U.S. defense leaders and PRC officials include a recent bilateral meeting with Ely Ratner, the assistant defense secretary for Indo-Pacific security affairs. 

Communication has also occurred at “lower levels, but certainly we welcome that higher-level communication between the commander of INDOPACOM and PRC officials. Again, to keep the channels of communication open,” he said.

China’s participation in the conference had been in doubt as late as July, when Aquilino told an audience at the Aspen Security Forum that he was not in contact with his Chinese counterparts, who had not responded to an invitation to the event.