Washington, USA (CNN) – US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin revealed that he had not spoken “in two months” with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe, noting that the latter refused to take a call in the wake of the US shooting down of the Chinese airship suspected of being used for espionage, the matter. which Beijing denies.
“The last time I spoke to him was two months ago,” Austin said, in an interview with CNN. “I think we will continue to stress how important that is, and we hope Secretary Wei will schedule this call. He knows where to find me,” he added.
Confirmation of the lack of direct contact between the leaders of the two largest armies in the world comes while the two countries continue to reinforce their forces in Asia. Sources told CNN on Thursday that the United States plans to increase the number of American troops training Taiwanese forces on the self-governing island in the coming months, which Austin declined to confirm.
In recent weeks, China has accused the United States of undermining peace and stability in the region after it strengthened its presence around Taiwan, by increasing forces at the nearby Okinawa and Guam bases.
Tensions escalated dramatically in early February, when a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon began moving tens of thousands of feet into US airspace.
U.S. President Joe Biden eventually ordered it shot down off the coast of South Carolina, after officials determined that the danger it would pose to civilians and property on the ground, if it were shot down, outweighed the risks from the intelligence it had gathered.
Chinese officials claimed the balloon was a “civilian research and weather balloon” that had veered off course, although the United States confirmed it had spying capabilities.
Austin told CNN it was possible that Chinese President Xi Jinping was unaware of the balloon, but he would “let Chinese officials speak for themselves.”
Austin emphasized that while he and Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe did not speak during that time, that did not mean the United States did not have other lines of communication open with various Chinese officials.
“You just saw Secretary of State Antony Blinken talking to his Chinese counterpart in Munich,” Austin said. “So there are open diplomatic lines of communication. But I think for the military, it’s definitely important that we keep open lines of communication,” he explained.
On top of the current tensions, U.S. officials have begun warning partners and allies about intelligence that revealed China could be providing lethal military assistance to the Russian military in Ukraine. The issue was raised at the Munich Security Conference, in a conversation between Blinken and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.
A senior US State Department official told reporters earlier, “Secretary Blinken has been very vocal in his warning about the ramifications and consequences of China providing material support to Russia or helping Russia evade sanctions.”
Austin added, last week, from Brussels that they expect to see Ukraine launch an offensive in the spring against Russia.
So far, Austin said in the interview, it didn’t seem like China was actually continuing to send lethal aid to Russia.
“There are reputational risks, and of course, I’m sure China would love to have a good relationship with all countries in Europe, and I think it would be a very unwise plan for China to do so,” he added.
Austin explained that China has “a lot of capabilities in terms of ammunition and weapons, and if it provides great support to Russia, it prolongs the conflict.”
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