US, Chinese defense ministers meet ahead of Asia security conference

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SHENZHEN, China — US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met his Chinese counterpart for the first time in Singapore on Friday, with both military leaders agreeing on the importance of communication and risk reduction.

It was the latest indication that the temperature of the US-China conflict had dropped a few notches, even as Beijing and Washington remain strategic rivals with opposing interests on a range of issues.

Chinese Defense Minister Wei Fenghe told Austin that the two countries should not let their differences escalate, according to Chinese state broadcaster CCTV. Wei called for a “healthy and stable major-country relationship” between Washington and Beijing.

Austin “discussed the need to responsibly manage competition and keep lines of communication open,” according to a reading from the U.S. Department of Defense. He stressed the importance for the People’s Liberation Army to work on “improving crisis communications and reducing strategic risks”.

The two military leaders met on Friday afternoon on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, Asia’s largest defense summit. Such high-level exchanges have become rarer in the pandemic: the Singapore summit has been canceled for the past two years due to the coronavirus.

It was the first face-to-face meeting for Austin and Wei, after a phone call in April. Austin became Secretary of Defense last year; Wei, Minister of Defense in 2018.

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In a keynote speech kicking off the event, Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida highlighted Japan’s role in the sanctions response to the Russian invasion and its concerns about other regional actors violating norms international – alluding to China.

Although he did not utter any harsh words, Kishida pointed to his country’s relations with other countries in the Quad group (the United States, Australia, India and Japan), Southeast Asia and of the Pacific region, a nod to Japan’s efforts to counter China’s relations with these countries.

Asked about Japan’s relations with China, Kishida struck a diplomatic balance.

“We affirm and support what needs to be supported and we also strongly request China to act responsibly. And also to build a constructive and stable relationship and we will cooperate on a common issue and agenda,” he said. he said, “We both have to put effort into building such a relationship.”

Austin is scheduled to speak on Saturday morning and Wei on Sunday.

Taiwan was a major point of contention during Austin’s meeting with Wei, records show. Wei criticized the latest round of US arms sales to Taiwan, a democratic, self-governing island claimed by Beijing as part of its territory but which has maintained its de facto independence for decades, in part through the provision of US military equipment.

Wei said US arms sales “seriously undermine China’s sovereignty and security interests” and said it would be impossible for the US “to use Taiwan to control China”.

Austin called on Beijing “to refrain from further destabilizing actions towards Taiwan.”

An island off the southern coast of mainland China, Taiwan has been called an “always-floating aircraft carrier” and is of strategic importance to Washington’s interests in the region. The overwhelming majority of Taiwan’s 23 million people today do not want to be “unified” with authoritarian China, although previously some wanted it after the two split in 1949 following the Chinese Civil War.

Beijing has said for years that it would unify Taiwan by force if necessary. There is no indication that Beijing would do so imminently, although Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has raised fears that China may follow its lead.

Both Beijing and Washington have increased pressure on Taiwan, while maintaining that their official positions remain unchanged. President Biden sparked a flurry of discussion last month when he said the United States would respond militarily if China invaded Taiwan, in what appeared to be a departure from the longstanding American position of maintaining ambiguity over the question. However, a White House official later said there was no change in US policy.

Beijing has stepped up military “training exercises” near Taiwan. In the Chinese government’s annual report in March, it also revised the wording of its Taiwan policy to reflect greater urgency, saying it was committed to “resolving the Taiwan question in the new era”.

On Friday, Austin and Wei kept most of their disagreements behind closed doors, with their readings underscoring their shared hope for greater communication. There were some differences in the readings: the US one said Austin discussed North Korea and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, while the Chinese report didn’t mention the topics.

Wei called on the United States to view China’s development “rationally” and avoid “attacking and smearing China”, according to CCTV.

“Stable military relations are crucial for the development of bilateral relations, and the two armies should avoid conflicts and confrontations,” he said.

A series of other bilateral meetings are also taking place during the Shangri-La dialogue, including a meeting between Wei and his Singaporean counterpart on Friday, in which they agreed to resume joint military exercises that had been suspended due to the coronavirus. The summit is organized by a London-based think tank, the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Vic Chiang in Taipei, Taiwan, contributed to this report.

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