U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin held a virtual meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun on Tuesday, the Pentagon said, as their countries seek to promote communication and prevent geopolitical rivalry from veering into conflict, accidentally or otherwise.

It is the first time since November 2022 that Austin has held talks with his Chinese counterpart. The U.S. defense chief and Dong, who took office in December, discussed the situations in the South China Sea and around the Taiwan Strait, as well as Russia's invasion of Ukraine and North Korea's weapons development program, according to the Pentagon.

The video teleconference took place following an agreement between President Joe Biden and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping at a mid-November summit near San Francisco to reopen direct military-to-military talks at several levels.

Earlier this month in Hawaii, the U.S. and Chinese militaries held talks on air and maritime operational safety for the first time since 2021.

High-level military communication channels had been closed since Beijing shut them down to protest a visit to Taiwan made in 2022 by then-U.S. House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

China claims Taiwan as part of its territory and often engages in shows of force by sending warships and fighter jets near the self-ruled democratic island.

The reopening of talks at Austin's level was also complicated by the fact that Dong's predecessor Li Shangfu was subject to U.S. sanctions, which China had called an obstacle to direct communication between him and the secretary. Li was ousted in October, possibly over corruption, after being in the post for less than a year.

During Tuesday's online meeting with Dong, Austin "underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea," the Pentagon said.

While reaffirming that Washington is upholding its "one-China policy," under which it recognizes Beijing as the sole legal government of China, Austin said peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait is important, according to the Pentagon.

Dong stressed the Taiwan issue is at the "core of China's core interests," vowing that the Chinese military will never let any "Taiwan independence" separatist activities or external support for them go unchecked, according to the Chinese Defense Ministry.

On the South China Sea, Dong urged Washington to respect Beijing's territorial sovereignty, maritime rights and interests in the area, and take concrete actions to safeguard regional peace and the stability of the two countries' military relations, the ministry said.

As part of efforts to reduce tensions, the United States and China have also held a series of meetings in nondefense areas since the November summit.

Following a recent trip to China by U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to visit the Asian country in the near future.

On Tuesday in Washington, Yellen convened a meeting of U.S.-China economic and financial working groups to discuss "balanced growth."

She told the meeting that the two countries have made progress on areas of common interest through their discussions to date, including efforts to ensure financial stability, combat money laundering and deal with climate change.

Combined photo shows U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin (L, Getty/Kyodo) and Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun. (Kyodo)

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