According to a report from The South China Morning Post, China did not return calls from US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin because he asked for the wrong official.
Last week, US officials told Reuters that Austin made three failed attempts to speak with Xu Qiliang, the vice-chairman of China’s Central Military Commission, who is seen as a close confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping. Sources told the Post that Austin should have requested to speak with Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe.
“Both Xu and Wei report to Xi, but in diplomatic protocol, Austin’s counterpart is Wei,” the source told the Post. “The Pentagon realized this when [Austin’s predecessors] Mark Esper and James Mattis were in office.” In August 2020, then-Secretary of Defense Mark Esper spoke with Wei by phone.
There were apparently debates within the Biden administration over which official Austin should try to speak with, and they ultimately picked the wrong one. Still, if US-China relations weren’t so strained, the confusion could have easily been cleared up.
China also has reasons to be hesitant to engage with Austin. His Pentagon recently identified China as the top “pacing threat” facing the US military, and the Biden administration is rallying allies to counter Beijing in Asia.