By Phil Stewart
TOKYO (Reuters) – The U.S. military’s top general expressed optimism on Friday for a potential improvement in military-to-military ties with China and sent an introductory letter to his Chinese counterpart saying he was open to meeting.
Air Force General Charles Q. Brown, who took over as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff just over a month ago, also said he did not believe that Chinese President Xi Jinping necessarily wanted to take Taiwan by force, while not ruling out the possibility.
The remarks by Brown during a trip to Japan came ahead of expected talks next week between Xi and U.S. President Joe Biden as they seek to stabilise tense relations.
Pentagon officials say a restoration of military ties, largely severed by Beijing, is crucial to preventing a miscalculation from spiralling into conflict.
“I think there’s an opportunity and … as the President potentially meets with Xi next week, we’re getting indications that there is some interest,” Brown told a small group of reporters in Tokyo. “If the opportunity presents itself, I will definitely engage.”
Brown did not specify to whom he sent the introductory letter. But China’s General Liu Zhenli is the Chief of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), the military body responsible for China’s combat operations and planning.
Brown said he sent a standard introductory letter that explained, “I’m in the position and willing to open a line of communication.”
U.S. officials have cautioned that even with some restoration of military communications, forging truly functional dialogue between the two sides could take time.
Some analysts say China seeks ambiguity in defence relations to constrain what Beijing sees as U.S. military provocations in the region.
Washington and Beijing are at loggerheads over everything from the future of democratically ruled Taiwan to territorial claims in the South China Sea. Diplomatic relations are still recovering after the U.S. downed an alleged Chinese spy balloon in February.
Brown appeared to downplay Xi’s enthusiasm for a potential invasion of Taiwan, in part given the military difficulty of such an operation. CIA Director William Burns has said Xi has instructed his country’s armed forces to be ready to invade by 2027.
“I do think that Xi Jinping doesn’t necessarily want to take Taiwan by force. He will try to use other ways to do this,” Brown told a small group of reporters in Tokyo. “I also believe that taking Taiwan by force and doing a major amphibious operation is not an easy feat.”
Brown, a former commander of the U.S. Air Force in the Asia-Pacific region, has met People’s Liberation Army (PLA) officials in the past, including the People’s Liberation Army Air Force’s northern theatre commander in 2019 during a visit to Seoul.
Liu has emerged as the top contender to replace China’s country’s defence minister, General Li Shangfu, who was dismissed from his position last month. Reuters reported in September that Li was under investigation over suspected corruption related to equipment procurement and development.
Brown acknowledged corruption in the Chinese military when asked about Li’s removal, and broader issues in the PLA, but also noted “alignment with Xi Jinping and his thinking as he continues to consolidate power”. Li was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2018 for an arms deal he secured with Russia in an earlier role. China had demanded the sanctions – which include a visa ban and prohibitions on conducting U.S. financial transactions – be lifted.
Liu, 59, is not under Western sanctions.
Any decision to improve military-to-military ties – frozen by Beijing when then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taipei in August 2022 – would be made by Xi, who has the ultimate say in all important policies and appointments.
Xi is also commander in chief of the armed forces and chairman of the CMC, China’s top defence decision-making body, on which Liu already sits.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart. Editing by Gerry Doyle and Jon Boyle)