The South China Morning Post (May 25) citing analysts and sources said misunderstandings and protocol disagreements have affected dialogue between the Chinese and US militaries, but without causing an immediate crisis. It quoted an unnamed Chinese military source saying there was a misunderstanding when US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin requested to talk to Chinese Central Military Commission (CMC) vice-chairman Xu Qiliang, causing offence at the Chinese defence ministry. He added that Austin’s counterpart should be Chinese Defence Minister Wei Fenghe, rather than Xu Qiliang. He said “Both Xu and Wei report to Xi, but in diplomatic protocol, Austin’s counterpart is Wei. The Pentagon realised this when [Austin’s predecessors] Mark Esper and James Mattis were in office.” The Financial Times reported that Beijing had on three occasions rejected Austin’s requests to speak to Xu by telephone. On May 24, the Global Times said the Pentagon “did not follow diplomatic protocol”. The South China Morning Post also said Chinese international relations experts said communication channels between the two countries’ governments and militaries had been almost suspended since the heated talks between their top diplomats in Alaska in March. Other observers disagreed that Austin’s request broke diplomatic protocol and was the cause of a failure of communication channels with Zhu Feng,  International Relations Professor from Nanjing University, saying context was more important than job titles. He said “The two countries would care not about their negotiating partners’ official titles but about their executive authority. The current disputes indicate the two countries have reached the stage where both sides need to get along with each other better.” Shi Yinhong, Professor of International Relations at Renmin University in Beijing, said “It’s understandable that the Chinese defence ministry would reject requests from their American counterparts during their fierce competition, with Beijing feeling that its bottom line was challenged by the US. All those arguments caused the failure to establish regular communication mechanisms in both sides’ governments and militaries since Biden came to office in January.” However, Shi said that since late April, there had been some indications that Beijing and Washington had ordered their frontline troops to be restrained during encounters and engagement in the region. He said “Despite their war of words, both the People’s Liberation Army and their American counterparts are quite careful to avoid making any provocative moves to inflame each other,” and the US Navy had so far not crossed the median line in the Taiwan Strait. The South China Morning Post said the military source agreed with Shi Yinhong, saying “After several years of encounters in the region, the two militaries have been getting used to each other’s presence”. “Their warships and aircraft would keep safe distances during engagements to prevent any potential accidents from happening.”

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