Washington CNN —
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told CNN that he and his Chinese counterpart have not spoken for a “couple of months,” with Chinese Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe refusing to take a call in the wake of the US shootdown of the suspected Chinese surveillance balloon.
“The last time that I talked to him was a couple of months ago,” Austin in an interview with Kaitlan Collins for “CNN This Morning” on Thursday.
“I think we’ll continue … to stress how important it is and hopefully Minister Wei will schedule that call,” Austin added. “He knows where to find me.”
The confirmation leaders of the two largest militaries in the world are not in direct contact comes as the two countries continue to build up their forces in Asia. CNN reported Thursday that the US is planning to increase the number of US troops training Taiwanese forces on the self-governing island in the coming months, something Austin declined to confirm. In recent weeks China accused the US of undermining peace and stability in the region after it strengthened its posture around Taiwan by bolstering forces in nearby Okinawa and Guam.
And tensions significantly escalated at the beginning of the month when a suspected Chinese surveillance balloon was drifting tens of thousands of feet up across the continental United States. President Joe Biden eventually ordered it shot down off the coast of South Carolina after officials determined that the risk the balloon would pose to civilians and property on the ground if shot down outweighed the intelligence collection risk it presented.
Chinese officials claimed that the balloon was a “civilian airship” for research and weather purposes which had drifted off course, though the US reaffirmed it had surveillance capabilities.
Austin told CNN that it’s possible Chinese President Xi Jinping did not know about the balloon, but he would “let the Chinese speak for themselves.”
Austin did emphasize that that while he and Wei haven’t spoken during that period, it doesn’t mean the US doesn’t have other lines of communications open with different Chinese officials.
“You just saw [Secretary of State Antony Blinken] talk to his counterpart in Munich,” he said Thursday. “And so there are diplomatic lines of communication open. But I think for the military, it’s really, really important that we maintain open lines of communication.”
On top of existing tensions, US officials have begun warning partners and allies of intelligence that showed China could provide lethal military aid to Russia’s military in Ukraine. The issue was even raised at the Munich Security Conference over the weekend in a conversation between Blinken and his counterpart, Wang Yi.
“The Secretary was quite blunt in warning about the implications and consequences of China providing material support to Russia or assisting Russia with systematic sanctions evasion,” a senior State Department official previously told reporters.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has been ongoing for a year now, with no signs of slowing. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley said at a meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group in Brussels last week that Russia is “now a global pariah” since its invasion of Ukraine, and has lost “strategically, operationally, and tactically.”
Austin added last week from Brussels that they expect to see Ukraine conduct an offensive in the spring against Russia.
Thus far, China has not appeared to actually go through with sending lethal aid to Russia, Austin said in the interview, but it has not been “taken off the table.”
“[T]here’s reputational risk, and of course, I’m sure China would love to enjoy a good relationship with all the countries in Europe,” he said. “And again, if you just look at the numbers of countries around the world, that really think that what Russia has done is horrible, I mean, adding to that, I think China – it would be a very ill-advised step for China to take.”
China has a “lot of capability in terms of munitions and weapons,” Austin added, “and if they provide the substantial support to Russia, it prolongs the conflict.”