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US defense chief slams China over rejected military talks

June 3, 2023

Lloyd Austin's remarks came after Beijing declined an official invitation for a meeting with his Chinese counterpart on the sidelines of Asia's top defense summit.

US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speaks during the 20th Shangri-La Dialogue summit in Singapore
Austin and Li Shangfu shook hands and briefly spoke for the first time at the opening dinner of the Shangri-La Dialogue but the interaction was underwhelming for the formerImage: Roslan Rahman/AFP/Getty Images

US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has criticized China for its unwillingness to engage regarding military crisis management after Beijing declined an official invitation for a meeting between him and his counterpart. 

"I am deeply concerned that the PRC [People's Republic of China] has been unwilling to engage more seriously on better mechanisms for crisis management between our two militaries," Austin said at Asia's top security summit in Singapore on on Saturday.

"The more that we talk, the more that we can avoid the misunderstandings and miscalculations that could lead to crisis or conflict."

Austin and his Chinese counterpart, General Li Shangfu, briefly spoke and shook hands at the opening dinner of the Shangri-La Dialogue defense summit in Singapore. However, the interaction fell short of the Pentagon's hopes for a more substantive exchange.

A senior official from China's People's Liberation Army strongly rejected Austin's contention that Beijing was not engaging enough in military crisis management.

Lieutenant General Jing Jianfeng also said China sticks by its belief that it has sovereignty over islands in the South China Sea and nearby waters.

What's the current state of US-China ties?

Relations between the US and China are at an all-time low for a number of reasons, including disagreements over the status of Taiwan, spy balloons and espionage, territorial disputes in the South China Sea and the ongoing war in Ukraine

"A cordial handshake over dinner is no substitute for a substantive engagement," said the US defense chief. "The United States does not seek a new Cold War. Competition must never spill over into conflict."

Austin is currently on a tour of Asia, where he held a bilateral meeting with Japanese Defense Minister Yasukazu Hamada on June 1. He will next visit India in an effort to shore up support in the region that could help counter China.

US promises 'ironclad' defense of Philippines

Meanwhile, the spokesperson for the Chinese Embassy in Washington, Liu Pengyu, accused the US of working against Beijing's interests. "The US says it wants to speak to the Chinese side while seeking to suppress China through all possible means and continue imposing sanctions on Chinese officials, institutions and companies," he said in a statement on Friday.

"Is there any sincerity in and significance of any communication like this?"

The US, in collaboration with allies in the Indo-Pacific region, has increased its military presence in the South China Sea to counter territorial claims made by China. This includes regularly sailing through and flying over the Taiwan Strait and the South China Sea. 

"We are committed to ensuring that every country can fly, sail and operate wherever international law allows," Austin said at the forum hosted by the International Institute for Strategic Studies think. "And every country, large or small, must remain free to conduct lawful maritime activities." 

Taiwan remains a delicate issue

Amid a plethora of diplomatic, military and economic issues between the US and China, Taiwan remains the most delicate one.

Beijing views the self-ruled, democratic island as a Chinese province. 

The US does not have formal diplomatic ties with Taipei. Washington, however, maintains unofficial relations and is a key supplier of weapons to the territory. Both sides also enjoy robust trade ties, accounting for billions of dollars annually. 

Tensions between the US and China heightened after a controversial visit to Taiwan in August 2022 by the former speaker of the US House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi. 

Beijing slammed the trip and held massive military drills around the island.

Taiwan, the semiconductor superpower

Since then, a number of high-ranking US officials have visited Taiwan, drawing China's ire. 

The US on Thursday  signed a trade agreement with Taipei aimed at strengthening bilateral commercial relations despite vehement opposition from Beijing.

US 'deeply committed' to Taiwan status quo

Speaking at the summit in Singapore, Austin pointed to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, using it to illustrate "how dangerous our world would become if big countries could just invade their peaceful neighbors with impunity."

"Conflict is neither imminent nor inevitable. Deterrence is strong today and it's our job to keep it that way," Austin said, adding that the US was "deeply committed" to preserving the status quo in Taiwan.  

mk/sri (AFP, AP, Reuters)

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