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Pentagon Chief Esper Talks With Chinese Counterpart As Tensions Soar

Defense Secretary Mark Esper, pictured last month, spoke with his Chinese counterpart Thursday amid strained relations between the two countries.
Michael Reynolds
Defense Secretary Mark Esper, pictured last month, spoke with his Chinese counterpart Thursday amid strained relations between the two countries.

Amid deteriorating U.S.-China relations, further aggravated by a highly unusual trip to Taiwan this weekend by Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar, Defense Secretary Mark Esper talked for 90 minutes on Thursday with his Chinese counterpart, Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.

According to accounts by both sides, the two nations' military leaders had plenty of grievances to air. The Trump administration has lately accused China of hiding information about the coronavirus, shut down China's consulate last month in Houston for alleged spying, accused China of military expansionism in the South China Sea, and enraged Beijing with a $2 billion sale of weapons to Taiwan, the democratically ruled island whose independence from China has never been recognized by Beijing.

"Secretary Esper called for greater PRC [People's Republic of China] transparency on COVID, expressed concern about PRC destabilizing activity in the vicinity of Taiwan and the South China Sea, and called on the PRC to honor international obligations under the principles of the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration," the Pentagon press office said Thursday in a news release. "Secretary Esper communicated the importance that the PRC abide by international laws, rules, and norms, and meet its international commitments."

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters Esper discussed in particular with his Chinese counterpart Beijing's obligations for transparency about the COVID-19 pandemic.

"They have a have a need to provide samples, to provide data — that didn't happen," Hoffman said. "And we expect them to continue to improve their information sharing in regard of that."

China's state-run Xinhua news agency, for its part, had its own version of what Esper heard from the Chinese defense minister.

"Wei stated China's principled position on questions including the South China Sea, Taiwan and the U.S. stigmatization of China," the agency reported, adding pointedly that Wei "urged the U.S. side to stop erroneous words and deeds, improve the management and control of maritime risks, avoid taking dangerous moves that may escalate the situation, and safeguard regional peace and stability."

There was no mention by either side of any discussion regarding the planned visit by Azar to Taiwan on Sunday, which the Health and Human Services Department says will be "the highest level visit by a U.S. Cabinet official since 1979," the year the U.S. established a formal embassy in Beijing.

"This trip represents an opportunity to strengthen our economic and public health cooperation with Taiwan," Azar is quoted as saying in the HHS news release, "especially as the United States and other countries work to strengthen and diversify our sources for crucial medical products."

Azar's trip coincides with a Reuters report that the U.S. State Department has "tacitly authorized" the sale of at least four SeaGuardian surveillance drones to Taipei that have a flying range of 6,000 nautical miles, compared with the 160-mile range of the drones now in its fleet.

The United States, accordingto Xinhua, "should respect China's sovereignty and territorial integrity and stop interfering in China's domestic affairs, just as China respects those of the United States."

"Washington should rid itself of the delusion that Beijing will somehow change course and adopt U.S.-style political and social systems," the state news agency opined Thursday. "Now, the ball is in the U.S.' court."

Esper has said he would like to make his first visit to China as defense secretary before the end of this year, although Pentagon spokesman Hoffman said no date has yet been set for such a trip.

Former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis visited China two years ago, the first trip made there by a Pentagon chief since 2014.

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David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.