U.S., Chinese military officials resume talks on operational safety

  • Published
  • By Joseph Clark
  • DOD News

Military officials from the U.S. and China met this week for working-level talks focused on ensuring safe and professional air and naval interactions between their forces.


The two-day discussions, held in Honolulu, marked the resumption of the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement Working Group, a series of annual operational safety dialogues. The MMCA dialogues were established more than two decades ago; they were last held in December 2021. 

This year's discussions included representatives from U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, U.S. Pacific Fleet and U.S. Pacific Air Forces, who met with their counterparts from China's People's Liberation Army. 

The head of the U.S. delegation, Army Col. Ian Francis, Indo-Pacom's director of Northeast Asia policy, said the delegation is encouraged by representatives from China's army honoring their commitment to attend the talks. He said he looks forward to future discussions aimed at safeguarding forces operating in the region. 

"The Military Maritime Consultative Agreement is U.S. Indo-Pacom's primary means to directly discuss air and maritime operational safety with the PLA," Francis said. "The United States will continue to operate safely and professionally in the Indo-Pacific wherever international law allows, and we take this responsibility seriously. 

"Open, direct and clear communications with the PLA and with all other military forces in the region is of utmost importance to avoid accidents and miscommunication," he said.  

During this year's MMCA, officials from both countries reviewed specific instances of safety-related events in the region that have occurred in recent years. The officials also discussed sustaining maritime and aviation operational safety and professionalism. 

President Joe Biden secured China's agreement to return to military-to-military talks in November after meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Woodside, California. 

That meeting was quickly followed by talks between Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. CQ Brown, Jr., and his Chinese military counterpart, People's Liberation Army Gen. Liu Zhenli, in December. 

In January, senior U.S. and Chinese military officials resumed the U.S.-China Defense Policy Coordination Talks at the Pentagon. The high-level talks were last held in September 2021. 

According to the most recent China Military Power Report, the U.S. has documented more than 180 coercive and risky air intercepts against U.S. aircraft in the region between 2021 and 2023.     

That is more risky intercepts in the past two years than in the past decade, according to the report. 

In previewing this week's military-to-military talks, defense officials noted a decrease in China's unsafe behavior toward U.S. maritime and air operators in the region.  

"We've observed a reduction in unsafe behavior between us and PLA aircraft and vessels over the last several months," a senior military official said. "So, we're encouraged by that, and we're happy that we have this opportunity with the MMCA to talk about ways to make sure that trend continues in the right direction." 

However, U.S. officials noted they maintain concerns over China's continued unsafe behavior toward non-U.S. maritime operations in the region.  

"In recent months, we do continue to see the PRC acting very dangerously and unlawfully against routine maritime operations the Philippines was conducting in the South China Sea," a senior defense official said. "We'll continue to press [China] on those issues." 

Biden and Xi met again this week for a phone discussion featuring "candid and constructive discussion on a range of bilateral, regional and global issues, including areas of cooperation and areas of difference," according to a White House summary of the call.  

During the discussion, Biden emphasized the importance of maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. He also raised concerns over China's support of Russia's defense industrial base.  

The two leaders "welcomed ongoing efforts to maintain open channels of communication and responsibly manage the relationship" through diplomatic channels and working-level dialogue, according to the summary of their talk.