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Top US and Chinese military officials speak for the first time in over a year

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By Haley Britzky and Natasha Bertrand, CNN

(CNN) — The top US and Chinese generals spoke on Thursday for the first time in over a year, marking the end of a strained silence between senior US and Chinese military officials that had deeply concerned the Pentagon.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., had a video conference call with his Chinese counterpart on Thursday, Joint Staff spokesperson Capt. Jereal Dorsey said.

Brown spoke with the People’s Liberation Army of China Chief of the Joint Staff Department Gen. Liu Zhenli, also marking the first time the two have talked since Brown became chairman.

“Gen. Brown discussed the importance of working together to responsibly manage competition, avoid miscalculations, and maintain open and direct lines of communication,” Dorsey said. “Gen. Brown reiterated the importance of the People’s Liberation Army engaging in substantive dialogue to reduce the likelihood of misunderstandings.”

During the meeting, Liu told Brown that the “key to developing a healthy, stable, and sustainable military-to-military relationship” was that the US “must have a correct understanding of China.”

“The premise is that the United States should respect China’s core interests and major concerns, and focus on promoting pragmatic cooperation and enhancing mutual understanding,” Liu said, according to a readout released by China’s Ministry of National Defense Thursday.

Leaders of the two militaries had not spoken in more than a year after then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan in August 2022, which China responded to with military drills around the island. A number of high-profile incidents have occurred since then, including a Chinese spy balloon traveling across the continental US and an increase in “coercive and risky” behavior by Chinese pilots against US aircraft in the last two years over the East and South China Seas.

Restoring that communication was one of the priorities in talks last month between President Joe Biden and China’s Xi Jinping.

“My responsibility is to make this rational and manageable, so it doesn’t result in conflict,” Biden said at the time. “That’s what I’m all about.”

US military leaders have said for months that the silence from China was of significant concern. Following Biden’s meeting with Xi, the Pentagon said this month that the policy office was in “active coordination” with Beijing to establish communication.

In June, Austin “spoke briefly” with his counterpart, then-PRC Minister of National Defense Li Shangfu, at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, but “did not have a substantive exchange.” Since then, Shangfu was fired and there has yet to be new defense minister appointed.

Asked last week if China had offered someone to speak with Austin in place of the defense minister, Pentagon spokesman Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder said only that the US was “reaching out.”

Among the issues discussed between Brown and Liu was “opening the lines of communication” between the US Indo-Pacific Command and the People’s Liberation Army Eastern and Southern Theater Commands. Adm. John Aquilino, commander of US Indo-Pacific Command, told lawmakers in April that a standing request to speak with his Chinese counterparts had been ignored the entire time he has been in the job.

“[T]he theme here is we continue to try to engage with our partner,” Aquilino said at the time, “but there’s a different opinion there.”

During the meeting, Liu emphasized that China “does not tolerate any external interference” when it comes to Taiwan, the self-governing democratic island that China’s ruling Communist Party claims but has never controlled.

“The Chinese military will resolutely defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity,” said Liu, who is a member of the party’s Central Military Commission, the military’s top command and decision-making body.

He also raised the South China Sea, where tensions have been rising in recent months as Beijing asserts its claim to the disputed waters. A 2016 ruling from an international tribunal denied its claims to the bulk of the strategically important waters.

“The United States should respect China’s territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests in the South China Sea, be cautious in its words and deeds, and take practical actions to safeguard regional peace and stability and the overall interests of China-US relations,” Liu said, according to China’s readout.

This story has been updated with additional details.

CNN’s Wayne Chang and Simone McCarthy contributed to this report.

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