A top U.S. national security official says Washington and Beijing are “in the very early stages” of discussions that could eventually tamp down military tensions but that China’s seriousness will have to be tested.
Kurt Campbell, U.S. National Security Council coordinator for the Indo-Pacific, told a virtual audience Friday that the focus of the discussion will be areas like nuclear weapons, cyberspace and space, where potential missteps could lead to disaster.
“We go into this carefully,” he said of the potential talks. “President Xi [Jinping] indicated he was prepared for some of this, but I think that’s going to have to be tested over time.”
Campbell’s comments came days after U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s Xi spent more than three hours in a virtual meeting to talk about a range of issues, including human rights, economic competition and Taiwan.
A U.S. official expressed caution following the meeting in a background briefing for reporters where the White House asked that the official not be quoted by name. The senior administration official said that there had been no expectations for any significant breakthrough and told reporters that afterward, “There were none to report.”
But Campbell, who attended the virtual meeting between Biden and Xi, indicated it could prove to be a starting point to ensure there are clear lines of communication between Washington and Beijing and an “ability to communicate honestly at the highest level.”
Just how much can be done in the near term, though, remains to be seen.
U.S. officials have repeatedly warned of China’s rapid military expansion, described by some senior generals as “stunning,” which has Beijing on track to potentially surpass the U.S. as the world’s largest military power in the coming decades.
A recent Pentagon report also raised concerns about China’s nuclear arsenal, which could number as many as 1,000 warheads by the end of the decade – more than twice as many as predicted in earlier estimates.
Campbell on Friday described China’s military buildup as one of the most concerning military expansions in modern times.
Chinese officials have not commented on Campbell’s remarks. Beijing’s embassy in Washington has not responded to an email sent Friday afternoon.
Earlier this month, a spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry rejected concerns from the Pentagon report and instead called the United States “the top source of nuclear threat in the world.”
The spokesperson said Beijing remains “firmly committed to a self-defensive nuclear strategy” and abides by the policy of no first use of nuclear weapons.
Despite China’s insistence that it is not a threat, however, Campbell said Friday that Beijing is being forced to reckon with how other countries, like the U.S., are reacting to its military buildup.
“It would be fair to say at the virtual meeting President Xi made very clear that a number of things that the United States is doing cause China some heartburn,” Campbell said. “And I think at the top of that list is our bilateral reinforcing and revitalizing our bilateral security alliances.”
Campbell said the Chinese characterized Washington’s stronger ties with countries in the Indo-Pacific region, as well as multilateral efforts like AUKUS and the Quad as “Cold War thinking.”
Only Campbell said the U.S. made clear it sees such efforts as “essential,” and said Japan has agreed to a host a meeting of the Quad next year to work on additional areas of cooperation.
Additionally, Campbell said Washington also hopes to bolster its ties with India.
“I’m very bullish about the future with India,” he told the virtual audience at the United States Institute for Peace. “We are determined to do what we can in the bilateral context to build relations.”
Campbell further pointed to Washington’s growing ties with Vietnam, calling the country “a critical swing state not just strategically but commercially and technologically.”
“There’s going to be more training, more ship visits and the like,” he said. “I believe fundamentally the ability to work closely with Vietnam will be decisive for us going forward.”
VOA’s Nike Ching contributed to this report.