Top US and Chinese Defense Officials Seek to Restore Communications as Tensions Rise in Indo-Pacific

U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with China's Defence Minister Dong Jun
U.S. Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with China's Defence Minister Dong Jun on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore Friday, May 31, 2024. (AP Photo/Vincent Thian)

SINGAPORE — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with his Chinese counterpart for more than an hour Friday, as the two countries seek to repair lines of communications between their militaries that could be critical as tensions continue to rise between the two in the Indo-Pacific region.

The meeting behind closed doors with Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun was the first in person for the top defense officials since contacts between the American and Chinese militaries broke down in 2022 after then-U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, infuriating Beijing.

It took place on the sidelines of the Shangri-La defense forum, Asia's premier security conference, which features defense officials, government leaders and diplomats from around the world.

The weekend talks are being held as wars rage in Gaza and Ukraine, and at a time of increasing tensions and competition for influence between the United States and China in the Indo-Pacific region.

Beijing in recent years has been rapidly expanding its navy and is becoming growingly assertive in pressing its claim to virtually the entire South China Sea, which has led to an increasing number of direct conflicts with other countries in the region, most notably the Philippines and Vietnam.

    The U.S., meanwhile, has been ramping up military exercises in the region with its allies to underscore its “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept, meant to emphasize freedom of navigation through the contested waters, including the Taiwan Strait. China also claims the democratic self-governing island of Taiwan and has said it will not rule out using force to take it.

    Austin, who is due to address the conference on Saturday, reiterated the American position to Dong during their talks, according to Pentagon spokesperson Maj. Gen. Pat Ryder.

    “The secretary made clear that the United States will continue to fly, sail, and operate — safely and responsibly — wherever international law allows,” Ryder said. “He underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea.”

    Since territorial hostilities with China surged last year in the South China Sea, Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s administration has taken steps to forge new security alliances with a number of Asian and Western countries and allowed a U.S. military presence in more Philippine bases under a 2014 defense pact.

    In his talks with Austin, Dong accused the U.S. of inflaming regional security by deploying medium-range missiles in the Philippines for the first time recently, and said the Philippines was being provocative toward China by pressing its own South China Sea claims, Chinese Defense Ministry spokesperson Wu Qian told reporters after the meeting.

    Marcos opens this year's conference, hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, with a keynote address Friday.

    This week, Marcos already expressed concerns over a new law issued by China giving its coast guard license to seize foreign ships “that illegally enter China’s territorial waters” and to detain foreign crews for up to 60 days. The same law also made new reference to 2021 legislation that says China’s coast guard can fire upon foreign ships if necessary.

    With Philippines ships now regularly confronted by the Chinese, there are concerns that a low-level confrontation could lead to an escalation, said Eugene Tan, a professor of international law at the Singapore Management University.

    “I don't think these countries are really looking to go to war with each other, but the concern with these skirmishes is that sometimes when you have a miscalculation, then things could rapidly deteriorate into the use of force,” he said.

    “And I think the last thing that countries in the region would want, particularly as they focus on the post-pandemic recovery, would be to have a regional conflict at the doorstep.”

    This year's conference comes just a week after China held massive military drills around Taiwan, staging a simulated blockade of the island after it inaugurated a new government that refuses to accept Beijing's insistence that the island is part of China.

    China regards Taiwan as a renegade province that must come under its control, by force if necessary.

    The U.S., like most countries, does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is bound by its own laws to provide the island with the means to defend itself. Washington is Taiwan’s biggest provider of military hardware and maintains a de facto embassy on the island to underscore their strong ties.

    In his talks with Dong, Austin reiterated that the United States remains committed to the one-China policy, but “expressed concern” about the recent Chinese exercises, Ryder said.

    Austin told Dong that China “should not use Taiwan's political transition — part of a normal, routine democratic process — as a pretext for coercive measures,” Ryder said.

    China has denounced American and British support for Taiwan’s newly elected government, as well as the visit of a U.S. congressional visit to meet with Taiwan’s new leader, Lai Ching-te.

    Dong brought up those concerns with Austin, telling him that he urged “the U.S. side to correct mistakes and abide by the one-China principle and to not, in any way, assist Taiwan independence by force,” Wu Qian said.

    China and the U.S. have been gradually restoring defense contacts since they broke down over Pelosi's visit to Taiwan, and Austin and Dong already talked with each other by video conference in April.

    In their meeting Friday, Austin emphasized the importance of keeping open lines of military-to-military communication and said “both sides will resume telephone conversations between theater commanders in the coming months,” Ryder said.

    Wu Qian said this was an important step.

    “The communications between the two militaries aims to enhance understanding, eliminate misunderstanding, accumulate mutual trust and achieve stability in relations,” he said.

    Meia Nouwens, a Chinese security and defense expert with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that while the resumption of direct communications is important, talking is the minimum that should be expected of two great powers.

    Direct military communications are meant to allow commanders to defuse a situation before it escalates, but Nouwens cautioned it will only be effective if Chinese leaders give their commanders the “political leeway to respond in the moment.”

    “We have to remember that there is a different political system in each of these two countries and therefore the commanders do not necessarily operate in the same way, or have the same level of political ability to make decisions in the moment or respond,” she said.

    Austin is due to address the forum Saturday morning, while Dong will speak on Sunday, the final day.


    AP journalists Syawalludin Zain in Singapore and Tara Copp in Washington contributed to this story.

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