(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin spoke with his Chinese counterpart as the two countries continue a push to stabilize ties. 

Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun discussed freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, “provocations” by North Korea and Russia’s war in Ukraine, according to a statement from the Pentagon. 

Dong said the two nations’ militaries should cooperate and avoid confrontation in Beijing’s readout released Wednesday. He reiterated the Taiwan issue’s importance to China, which sees the self-ruled democracy as its territory, and called the South China Sea situation “generally stable.”

Read More: Yellen Implores China to Rethink Economic Growth Strategy

The call on Tuesday was the first time the two have spoken since Dong was appointed in December. It was also the first substantive engagement between Austin and a Chinese defense minister since November 2022. 

The talks are part of a broader push to resume contacts up and down the military chain of command that were severed as tensions spiked over Taiwan and territorial disputes in the South China Sea in recent years. President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed in a November meeting to resume military contacts.

This month, representatives of the People’s Liberation Army, the US Indo-Pacific Command and the US Pacific Fleet met in Honolulu to discuss what the two sides call military interactions of concern. In December, General Charles Brown, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs, spoke with his Chinese counterpart Liu Zhenli.

Also, China and the Philippines have been engaging in a series of increasingly tense naval encounters around a shoal in the South China Sea. Earlier this week, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. said his nation will invoke its defense treaty with the US if a Filipino soldier dies from a foreign attack.

Beijing’s diplomats say Washington is using Manila to raise tensions in the disputed body of water. 

Read More: Why the South China Sea Fuels US-China Tensions: QuickTake

Talks between Austin and his counterparts also had been complicated by longstanding US sanctions on Dong’s predecessor Li Shangfu that China said were an obstacle to talks. Li was ousted as defense minister in October after serving just seven months in the role. Dong is China’s first defense minister with a naval background. 

--With assistance from Josh Xiao.

(Updates with Chinese statement in third paragraph.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.