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US, China seek guardrails as Taiwan tensions persist

Yuchen Li in Singapore
June 3, 2024

Experts say the US-Chinese defense minister meeting at the Shangri-La Dialogue was a sign both sides want to manage risks. However, China did not back off on threatening Taiwan and lashing out at "external forces."

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun attend a bilateral meeting in Singapore
US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his Chinese counterpart for the first time in 2 years Image: DoD/Chad J. McNeeley/Handout/REUTERS

After China's Defense Minister Dong Jun met his US counterpart Lloyd Austin on the sidelines of the Shangri-La security summit in Singapore, the Pentagon welcomed plans for a US-China "crisis communication group," while Beijing called the talks "positive, practical and constructive."

The Shangri-La Dialogue, organized by the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), has become a barometer for US-China tensions in recent years.

The hour-long sitdown on Friday was the first high-level US-China military meeting after US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed to reopen military-to-military contacts in November 2023. China had severed contact after then-US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi angered Beijing by visiting Taiwan in August 2022.

"We at least have a regular set of communications between the two sides to reduce the odds of miscalculation," Amanda Hsiao, a senior China expert at the International Crisis Group (ICG), told DW.

Although opening lines of communication is a sign that the US and China want to manage the risks of confrontation better, individual speeches from Austin and Dong at the summit showed both countries have opposing viewpoints on regional security in Asia.

China tries to flip the script on the US

In a Sunday session titled "China's Approach to Global Security," Defense Minister Dong emphasized the importance of a stable military-to-military relationship between China and the US.

"Even though we have different development paths, we should not pursue confrontation with each other," Dong said, highlighting that it requires "efforts from both sides" to find the right way to get along.

Chinese Defense Minister Dong Jun
Defense Minister Dong Jun welcomed open communication with the US, but vowed to 'crush' a move towards Taiwan independenceImage: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

At the same time, Dong blamed "external forces" for stirring tensions in the Asia-Pacific through "bloc confrontations," following diplomatic decorum by not explicitly naming the US but alluding to Washington's strategic alliance-building as being a destabilizing force from an outside power.

A day earlier, US Secretary of Defense Austin's speech at the summit, "United States' Strategic Partnerships in the Indo-Pacific," highlighted Washington's alliance-building under the Biden administration as a lynchpin of regional security.

"We are operating with our allies and partners like never before," Austin said, pointing to joint military exercises with Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.

Before heading to Singapore, Austin had tweeted that the US was "delivering historic results" in the Indo-Pacific by "investing in capabilities, transforming US force posture, and connecting allies and partners."

Dong's speech contained a standard line from Beijing on strategic issues, describing China as a responsible major power that consistently upholds "openness and cooperation."

In response to Austin's speech, Chinese Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng said the US strategy was intended "to create division, provoke confrontation and undermine stability."

According to expert Hsiao, the narrative is that "China has peaceful intentions, and the problem isn't China; it's the US."

Lloyd Austin speaks at the 2024 Shangri-La Dialogue
Secretary of Defense Austin used his speech to highlight US alliance building in AsiaImage: Chad J. McNeeley/US Dod/EPA

Beijing warns Taiwan 'separatists'

On Taiwan, a major potential flashpoint for conflict in Asia, Dong accused the US of sending "seriously wrong signals" to "separatist forces" on the self-ruled island.

Beijing claims Taiwan as Chinese territory, and although officials repeat a mantra of preferring "peaceful reunification," Beijing's rhetoric implies it is willing to use force if necessary.

The US is Taiwan's primary security benefactor, and Beijing considers this to be outside meddling in its "internal affairs."

The US and other Western countries do not maintain formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan but provide indirect support, for example, through high-level political visits, without directly recognizing the island as independent, which would be a major red line for Beijing.

A week before the security summit, China had launched what it called "punishment" military drills surrounding Taiwan in what Beijing said was a response to "separatist acts" after the island's newly elected, Beijing-critical, President Lai Ching-te was inaugurated.

Dong claimed in his speech that Beijing was committed to "peaceful reunification" but warned China would "crush" attempts at pursuing independence and that "separatists" would be "nailed to the pillar of shame in history."

Secretary Austin emphasized in his speech that regional disputes should be resolved through dialogue and "certainly not through so-called punishment," referring to the Chinese drills.

Taiwan Tensions Soar: China Stages Live-Fire Drills After New Leader's Inauguration

Analyst Hsiao said that the unusual "sharpness" of Dong's language was intended as a message.

Ja Ian Chong, an associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore, told DW that Beijing wants to demonstrate its determination to pressure Taiwan while refraining from military action.

"The next available thing they can do is to use angry language," he said.

Tensions in the South China Sea

Next to Taiwan, maritime disputes in the South China Sea are another sore spot between the US and China.

Despite an international ruling in 2016 rejecting China's territorial claims, Beijing insists that most of the South China Sea belongs to China, even parts more than a thousand miles away from the Chinese mainland.

Last month, the US and the Philippines concluded large-scale joint military exercises, coming as Chinese vessels continue to harass Philippine boats near shoals located within the Philippines' Exclusive Economic Zone but claimed by China.

Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. was the keynote speaker at the Singapore summit and opened with a speech vowing the Philippines would respond if a soldier were to be killed by China's use of water cannons against Filipino vessels, asserting that "Filipinos do not yield" on sovereignty issues.

US Defense Secretary Austin also warned that "the harassment the Philippines has faced is dangerous." He emphasized that "every country, large or small, has the right to enjoy its own maritime resources."

In a thinly veiled reference to the Philippines, Dong claimed in his speech that the situation in the South China Sea is "stable" and blamed "individual countries" for disregarding bilateral agreements with support from "external forces" to deploy missiles in the region.

During the joint military exercises in April, the US placed a medium-range missile battery on the northern Philippine island of Luzon.

"China's messaging has been tone-deaf consistently," said Hsiao. It essentially "sidesteps the real security concerns of many governments in this region."

"It's no longer enough for China just to say, 'We have peaceful intentions.'" Hsiao added that for the international community, "there's not enough trust for that to be enough anymore."

China and the Philippines at odds over the South China Sea

Edited by: Wesley Rahn