US, China defense chiefs meet in hope of easing tension

Analysts said first in-person talks between Lloyd Austin and Dong Jun would yield little but break the ice.
By RFA Staff
2024.05.31
Singapore
US, China defense chiefs meet in hope of easing tension China's Defense Minister Dong Jun, center, walks out after a bilateral meeting with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the 21st Shangri-La Dialogue summit at the Shangri-La Hotel in Singapore, May 31, 2024.
AP Photo/Vincent Thian

Defense chiefs from China and the United States met in Singapore on Friday at a security forum in an encounter aimed at improving communication between the two powers amid rising tensions in the Indo-Pacific region.  

Dong Jun and Lloyd Austin had a one-hour meeting on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue, an annual security forum, being held this year from May 31 to June 2.

Few details emerged from the closed-door meeting but Chinese defense ministry spokesperson Wu Qian said that Dong and Austin discussed “Taiwan, the war between Russia and Ukraine, and the conflict in Gaza” during talks he described as “constructive.”

Wu told reporters that the Chinese minister warned the U.S. against “interfering in China’s affairs with Taiwan.”

A U.S. spokesman said that Austin “expressed concern about recent provocative PLA activity around the Taiwan Strait,” referring to the Chinese military by its official name, the People’s Liberation Army. 

“He reiterated that the PRC should not use Taiwan’s political transition – part of a normal, routine democratic process – as a pretext for coercive measures," the spokesman, Maj. Gen. Patrick Ryder, said in a statement, referring to the People’s Republic of China.

A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that the meeting marked an “important step” in opening lines of communication.

The official said Austin also brought up China’s nuclear, space and cyber developments.

Dong is the third Chinese defense minister – after Li Shangfu and Wei Fenghe – that Austin has seen in three consecutive years at the Shangri-La Dialogue as secretary of defense, but the second minister that he’s held talks with as Li declined the offer of a meeting in 2023.

The two defense chiefs had a conversation via video last month to discuss bilateral relations, as well as regional and global security issues.

Military ties between China and the U.S. have been fraught with problems that show no sign of abating as Beijing ramps up aggression against the democratic island of Taiwan and the Philippines in the South China Sea.

The U.S., at the same time, has also been holding military exercises with allies in the region to emphasize its “free and open Indo-Pacific” doctrine.

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

Analysts said that the Dong-Austin meeting, the first in-person talks between defense chiefs since 2022, indicates an attempt to restore communication and mend ties by both sides, but they had very low expectations for much more.

Lyle Goldstein, director of Asia Engagement at Defense Priorities, a U.S. think tank, told RFA that he had long advocated for “more sustained, widespread, longer and deeper engagement between the U.S. and Chinese military establishments.”

“But what we have now is very narrow, only at the very top level, and extremely brief,” he said. “It's better than a handshake, but not by much.”

“Such ‘in the spotlight’ engagements also tend to push the already truncated meetings into ‘gotcha’ moments where leaders aim for soundbites to impress the audience at home,” said Goldstein, a China expert who spent 20 years at the U.S. Naval War College.

Friction points

Both Austin and Dong plan to speak at the Shangri-La Dialogue to outline their countries’ approaches to global and regional security.

Austin is due to speak on Saturday and Dong on Sunday. 

The Chinese admiral, who took office in December after a major shake-up at China’s ministry of national defense, is expected to take a tougher stance against “trouble-stirring by countries from outside the region,” according to Chinese media.

On Thursday, a ministry spokesperson condemned the U.S. deployment of an intermediate range missile system during recent Balikatan military drills in the Philippines, saying it brought risk of war in the region.

“There are a host of friction points between the U.S. and China on the security front, the most prominent of which include Taiwan, the South China Sea, and Ukraine,” said Alexander Vuving, professor at the Daniel K. Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Hawaii.

In Vuving’s opinion, both China and the U.S. would seek to use  the Shangri-La Dialogue to “strike the weak points of the other.”

“China will likely portray the U.S. as an interventionist that stirs up tensions everywhere it gets involved, from Taiwan to the South China Sea to Ukraine to Gaza,” the political scientist said.

“The U.S. will heavily criticize China’s coercive actions, especially over Taiwan and in the South China Sea. It may also criticize China’s non-transparent practice regarding Ukraine and bases in Cambodia,” he added.

During the teleconference in April, the Pentagon chief “underscored the importance of respect for high seas freedom of navigation guaranteed under international law, especially in the South China Sea” to his Chinese counterpart.

The Shangri-La Dialogue, held by the International Institute for Strategic Studies since 2002, has become a major platform for government officials and security experts to discuss regional security. 

Chinese experts, however, take a dim view of the forum. China’s state-run tabloid Global Times quoted unidentified  analysts as saying that while the conference presented opportunities for Beijing to set the record straight, “it could also be a stage where Western countries use to launch malicious accusations against China.”

 Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is expected to deliver a keynote speech on Friday evening, in which he will talk about the South China Sea and other challenges that his country faces.

Edited by Mike Firn and Taejun Kang.

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