A major regional security forum is underway in Singapore amid rising tensions in the South China Sea and East Asia, with in-person communication between defense chiefs from China and the United States remaining shuttered.
U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin had invited his Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu, to a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore but the Chinese minister declined.
China’s decision is “unfortunate,” Austin said before arriving in the city state which has been hosting the annual event since 2002.
“You’ve heard me talk a number of times about the importance of countries with large, with significant capabilities, being able to talk to each other so you can manage crises and prevent things from spiralling out of control unnecessarily,” the U.S. defense secretary was quoted by news agencies as saying in Tokyo on Thursday.
“I would welcome any opportunity to engage with Li,” Austin said. “I think defense departments should be talking to each other on a routine basis or should have open channels for communications.”
For its part, China said that “dialogue cannot be without principles, and communication cannot be without a bottom line.”
Chinese Ministry of Defense spokesperson Tan Kefei said on Wednesday that the “current difficulties in the exchanges between the two militaries are entirely on the U.S. side.”
“On the one hand, the U.S. keeps saying that it wants to strengthen communication, but on the other hand, it ignores China’s concerns and artificially creates obstacles, seriously undermining the mutual trust between the two militaries,” Tan said.
The spokesperson did not elaborate on the obstacles but the U.S. Indo Pacific Command on Tuesday accused a Chinese J-16 fighter jet of performing an “unnecessarily aggressive” maneuver during the intercept of a U.S. Air Force RC-135 reconnaissance aircraft last week.
Beijing responded by calling it a hyped-up accusation, saying the U.S. spy plane “made an intrusion” into the Chinese army’s training zone in the South China Sea and its “aerial forces … professionally dealt with the situation in accordance with law and regulation.”
The Chinese defense minister, who took office in March, has been on the U.S. sanction list since 2018 for the purchase of SU-35 combat aircrafts and S-400 missile system-related equipment from Russia.
This could be another obstacle for an official meeting between Gen. Li and Secretary Austin.
In 2019 the then-Minister of National Defense Wei Fenghe had his first in-person meeting with his U.S. counterpart Patrick Shanahan.
Wei also met with Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of Shangri-La Dialogue in 2022 when the forum returned after a couple years of disruption because of COVID-19.
Analysts say the absence of a U.S.-China bilateral meeting reflects the difficulties in the military-to-military relations between the two powers.
Yet “the U.S.-China competition is a focal point of the Shangri-La Dialogue, since it shapes so much of the dynamics in the region and beyond,” said Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore (NUS).
The Global Times, a sister publication of the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece People’s Daily, in an editorial on Thursday said that the ball is in the U.S. court.
“Frankly speaking, the outcome and effectiveness of the Shangri-La Dialogue largely depend on how the U.S. behaves during the conference,” it warned, accusing the U.S. of always trying “to take center stage and set the tone” for the forum.
There are still hopes that, despite the rhetoric, the two delegations from the United States and China would meet “unofficially under a low-key format”, said Hoang Thi Ha, Co-ordinator for the Regional Strategic and Political Studies Program at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.
Southeast Asian countries “are keen to see whether the U.S. and China would renew their communication especially via the military and defense channel,” Ha told RFA.
“It is in everybody’s interest that Washington and Beijing tone down their hostile posturing towards each other,” the analyst said.
Li Shangfu and Lloyd Austin, separately, plan to make speeches at the forum. Li will speak of China’s new security initiatives and Austin on the U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific.
During the three days of the Shangri-La Dialogue, 600 delegates from 43 countries will examine the complex security environment in the Asia-Pacific and the war in Ukraine.
“Other topics of discussion are the situation in Myanmar and the war in Ukraine, especially when it comes to the issue of food security,” NUS’s Ian Chong told RFA.
In his opinion, the rising tension in the Taiwan Strait will also be discussed, as “any Taiwan crisis will affect the region quite directly because of supply chains, shipping lanes, air lanes, and submarine cables going to Northeast Asia.”
“The problem, however, is that Taiwan has only a token quasi-official presence at the forum,” the analyst said, noting that China, which considers Taiwan one of its provinces, would resolutely object to any official Taiwan attendance.
“More exposure to Taiwanese experts in the Shangri-La Dialogue certainly could provide deeper insights into the situations across Taiwan Strait,” said Norah Huang, research fellow from Taiwanese think tank Prospect Foundation.
The think tank’s president, Lai I-chung, is attending the forum as a guest of the organizer, the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
The Shangri-La Dialogue, in its 20 years, is “a unique meeting where ministers debate the region’s most pressing security challenges, engage in important bilateral talks and come up with fresh approaches together,” according to IISS.
Speakers at this year’s event include the ministers of defense from Germany, Australia, the U.K., Canada, Sweden, Japan, South Korea, Singapore, the Philippines, Indonesia and Cambodia.
Two key Southeast Asian players – Malaysia and Vietnam – are keeping low profiles and not making any addresses at the forum. Vietnam has also scaled down its presence, sending only a small delegation headed by a vice minister of defense.
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