Wei Fenghe, Lloyd Austin expected to meet for 1st time as Shangri-La Dialogue resumes in Singapore this weekend.
The defense chiefs of China and the US are expected to hold their first in-person meeting this weekend on the sidelines of a prominent security summit resuming in Singapore after a two-year pandemic hiatus.
Though not yet officially confirmed, Wei Fenghe and Lloyd Austin are likely to meet as top defense and security officials from 42 countries come together at the 19th Shangri-La Dialogue from Friday to Sunday.
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida will deliver a keynote address expected to focus on the importance of a “global order based on dialogue.”
Austin is due to speak at the event on Saturday, while Wei is among the speakers scheduled for Sunday.
Since the Biden administration came to power in January 2021, Austin and Wei have spoken just once – a 45-minute phone call this April that the Pentagon simply described as “good.”
Their expected meeting in Singapore comes at a time when Washington is focusing more on the Asia-Pacific region, shoring up bilateral and multilateral support as it seeks to contain Beijing’s growing influence.
– Ukraine, South China Sea, Taiwan
Observers expect the Ukraine war and disputes over the South China Sea and Taiwan to top the agenda for Wei and Austin’s meeting.
“They will certainly discuss the current developments in Ukraine, the South China Sea and Taiwan,” said Chienyu Shih, associate research fellow at Taiwanese think tank Institute for National Defense and Security Studies (INDSR).
He said China’s “intended expansion” of its “military, or security, role” in Pacific Island nations near Australia and New Zealand – both firm allies of the US – will also be on the table.
“I would speculate the US is hoping to establish certain principles or rules for ‘managing current competitions’ in Asia with China,” Chienyu told Anadolu Agency.
Besides its Five Eyes intelligence alliance, Washington also leads a loose regional security group that includes Japan, Australia and India.
Known as the Quad, the alliance is one of the many ways in which the US has been working to counter China’s expanding military and economic power.
Washington also signed the AUKUS pact last year with the UK and Australia that paved the way for Canberra to acquire nuclear-armed submarines.
The US has bilateral military pacts with many countries in Asia-Pacific, including Japan and South Korea, where it has deployed thousands of soldiers and latest weaponry.
In his first trip to Japan last month, President Joe Biden went as far as to threaten Beijing with military force if it attempts to take over Taiwan by force.
China considers Taiwan a “breakaway province” but Taipei has been insisting on its independence since 1949.
Biden’s administration has authorized four separate weapons deals with Taiwan since January 2021, with the latest being a $120 million naval equipment sale approved on Wednesday, all of which have drawn strong condemnation from Beijing.
Washington is also keenly following border tensions between China and India in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir’s Ladakh region.
Currently in India on a four-day visit, Gen. Charles Flynn, the top US general for Asia-Pacific, blamed Beijing for the confrontation.
He said Beijing’s actions along the Line of Actual Control – the de facto border between China and India in Ladakh – are “eye-opening,” “alarming” and “destabilizing.”
– Beijing wants ‘reduction in confrontations’
Despite its biting rhetoric against Washington’s military activities in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait, analysts believe China would prefer that tensions recede instead of escalating.
“China wants a reduction in confrontations,” Einar Tangen, senior fellow at the Beijing-based Taihe Institute, told Anadolu Agency.
“The US wants guardrails for increased confrontations,” he added.
However, amid a domestic economic slowdown, China continues efforts to forge stronger ties with Pacific Island nations.
Its latest security pact with the Solomon Islands triggered a chain reaction from the US, Australia, New Zealand and Japan.
Beijing has also proposed a trade and security pact for 10 other Pacific Island nations, which failed to materialize despite top diplomat Wang Yi’s marathon 10-day tour of some of the countries late last month.
The change in administration in Washington has also affected China-US ties.
Former President Donald Trump triggered a trade war with Beijing that Biden has started to undo, in part due to the record-high inflation in the US.
Under Biden, though, the US has also raked up the issues of Hong Kong, alleged abuse of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, Taiwan and Tibet.
Beijing has repeatedly pushed back against what it views as “interference in internal matters” and has called such criticism a “political virus.”
“China probably perceives that the US is attempting to build up a multilayered NATO in Asia, i.e. the Quad, AUKUS, Five Eyes, and the US-Japan Security Cooperation treaty etc., with the aim to deter or even prepare … for future conflict, most likely … along the Taiwan Strait,” said Chienyu, the Taiwan-based academic.
He said both the US and China are trying to understand what there is “to be learned from the current development in the Ukraine war for each side.”
“Their reflections or knowledge on the Ukraine war will be crucial for … their future competition strategies in Asia and the world,” he added.